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Event Details

5/06 2014

Synchronized Fireflies, Elkmont, Tennessee 2014



June 5, 2014 TO June 14, 2014 Date not confirmed




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Photinus carolinusis a species of rover firefly whose mating displays of synchronous flashing have fascinated both scientists and tourists. As individual males synchronize with males nearby, waves of alternating bright light and darkness seem to travel across the landscape. Firefly displays typically occur in early June near Elkmont, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A typical Photinus is a "lightning-bug firefly" (as opposed to the so-called "glowworm firefly") because it emits light in its winged (imago) stage. Both male and female adults produce mating signals with an abdominal light organ or "lantern". Members of Photinus are called "rover fireflies" because typically males fly about singly, not in groups, flashing a species-specific pattern until a receptive female responds with her species-specific flashing signal. P. carolinus was the first North American species found to show synchronized flashing behavior. Synchronized flashing by male fireflies is common in South Asia, where huge aggregates of males perch on specific trees to create a bright display of flashing. The synchronized flashing of P. carolinus males occurs in aggregates of flying fireflies. The timing of flashing depends somewhat on temperature, but the flash pattern of a male P. carolinus is typically four to eight very bright flashes emitted over two to four seconds, followed by a dark period of eight to 12 seconds. The female reply is much less bright, a pulsed signal during the dark period of the male. Scientists have suggested one reason for the synchronized flashing is to create a synchronized dark period, during which males can search for female responses without being distracted by signals from other males. When males of P. carolinus detect a female response, a cluster of males will form surrounding the female, with as many as 20 males energetically walking, flashing, and attempting to mount the female or nearby males. The female does not necessarily mate with the first male to reach her, but may show avoidance behaviors to several males before permitting one to begin copulation. In the early stages of copulation, other males may try to separate the couple, but once the mating pair has moved to stage 2 copulation (tail-to-tail), the unmated males fly off to seek females elsewhere. One of its small population ranges is Elkmont, Tennessee. The species is also found elsewhere in the Smoky Mountains, usually at elevations near 2,000 feet, and has been observed as far north as Pennsylvania. They are also found in parts of Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia. Increasing numbers of people come each year to the small trailhead near Elkmont to see them. Scientists use a "degree-day" model to try to predict the onset of each year's maximum display. Driving and parking near Great Smoky Mountains National Park are strictly regulated during the two-week P. carolinus mating season. Would-be visitors are required to park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and wait for a trolley to take them to the viewing site. On weekends there may be a four-hour wait for transportation. The firefly display near Elkmont attracted more than a thousand visitors nightly in early June 2011. A biologist who has studied the fireflies expressed concern about increased crowds at the park, saying, "The bulk of people are respectful ... But the total number of people is obscene.” Light Show EtiquetteFlashlights disrupt the fireflies and impair people's night vision. The light show is best when you: Cover your flashlight with red or blue cellophane. Use your flashlight only when walking to your viewing spot. Point your flashlight at the ground. Turn off your flashlight when you find your viewing spot. You can also help protect the fireflies and their habitat: Do not catch the fireflies. Stay on the trail at all times. Pack out all of your garbage. All visitors wishing to see the fireflies during this time period will need to make advance reservations for a parking pass at pass sales began on April 29 and all Advance and Large Vehicle parking passes were sold out by the end of the day. An additional 85 Day Before parking passes will go on sale at 10 a.m. the day before each of the eight days of the event (i.e. passes for June 6 will go on sale at 10 a.m. on June 5.) If you wish to attend the event in 2013, please check back on those dates. Because of the popularity of the synchronous firefly display, access to the Elkmont area is restricted after 5 p.m. in late May and early June to registered campers and those who park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and ride a special shuttle trolley to Elkmont. Access to the Sugarlands parking lot and to the trolley during this period requires a parking pass, which must be obtained in advance through Like many seasonal events in nature, the timing of the display of synchronized fireflies is influenced by environmental conditions and is impossible to accurately predict in advance.
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