How Do Fireflies Swarms Equalize Their Flashes?


Dr. Peleg and Dr. Sarfati placed two cameras 13 feet apart on the floor, overlapping the field of view. Like the producers on a movie set, they calibrated the broadcasts with a checkerboard and an artificial light signal. The overlapping images allowed the researchers to reconstruct a cone-shaped field of fireflies’ flashes in three dimensions. The researchers also placed two cameras in the middle of the vegetation to view the swarm through the eyes of a participating firefly. They stood silently at the edge of the clearing, watching the twinkling lanterns as the cameras recorded.

The 3D reconstruction allowed the researchers to characterize various complex patterns in the behavior of the herd. The male fireflies did not suddenly glow, but instead flashed in a cascading wave across the flock. For example, sometimes flares would start under the ridge and move towards the beetles at the top. Dr. Peleg suggests that this relay-like flash emission is where fireflies interact locally with the swarm and take their cues from the fireflies around them.

This pattern of diffusion is also found in other animal herds, such as flocks of fish, where local interactions between fish can spread to the entire group, he added.

Dr. “I see my neighbor blinking, so I blink too,” Sarfati said.

The reconstruction also revealed that flashes often occur in bursts, where a firefly flashing on the move would encourage other, slower-moving insects to flash as well. Andrew Moiseff, vice dean of behavioral and life sciences at the University of Connecticut, who has been researching the synchronized fireflies of the Great Smoky since the 1990s, said this observation shows that there is no clear firefly leader or single focus of activity.

Advising researchers, Dr. Moiseff said his findings confirm what he expects years later in the field. “It’s amazing,” he said, adding that the 3D approach gives an insight into the mechanisms behind the swarm that he didn’t know how to address in his early research.

Dr. Peleg said that although the new paper offers insights into the flash swarm, many factors remain unknown, such as how individual fireflies respond to their relatives from varying distances or multiple flashes from different individuals.


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