A profusion of fireflies

A delightful piece in Tuesday’s NYT Science Times, “How to Talk to Fireflies” by Joanna Klein, which is about animal communication — between fireflies, by flashing lights — though I was startled by a fact that came up in passing. The first paragraph:

As Earth rotates in the summer, fireflies whisper sweet nothings to each other in the most beautiful language never heard. For millions of years the insects have called to one another secretly, using flashes of light like a romantic morse code. With some rather simple technology — a light and a battery — scientists have been decoding their love notes for years. But recently I learned that you don’t have to be an entomologist to try to talk to fireflies.

Male common Eastern fireflies, flashing

The startling fact, which I’ve boldfaced, comes in the continuation of the main story:

About 2,000 known species of fireflies inhabit temperate and tropical forests around the world. All of them, as larvae, produce bioluminescent light through a chemical reaction inside their abdomens. But only some continue to flash as grown-up beetles that we know as fireflies. Most species developed their own flash pattern, or language, that they use to attract potential mates, warn predators about their toxicity, advertise a nutritious dowry, or, for some cannibalistic fireflies called femme fatales, mimic other firefly species and lure them in for dinner. A couple of species even flash in synchrony.

Two weeks ago, I took a new gadget with me to North Carolina and attempted a heart-to-heart with a firefly. I wanted to test out the Firefly Communicator, which was developed by Joey Stein, a nature enthusiast and technologist. The device is a hand-held, battery-operated, plastic thing-a-ma-jig with two buttons that control an LED light. By design, it looks a lot like a lightning bug. Scientists have been using contraptions of their own making to attract fireflies, identify their sex and species, and learn about their flash patterns for years. But this one, and the app that allows you to program it with your smartphone, requires far less background knowledge.

She goes on to test the app, with considerable success (in attracting amorous male fireflies). But then there’s the boldfaced piece, reporting that about 2,000 extant species of firefly are known. From Wikipedia:

The Lampyridae are a family of insects in the beetle order Coleoptera. They are winged beetles, and commonly called fireflies or lightning bugs for their conspicuous use of bioluminescence during twilight to attract mates or prey. Fireflies produce a “cold light”, with no infrared or ultraviolet frequencies.

Compare the firefly family with the hominid family. Again from Wikipedia:

The Hominidae … whose members are known as great apes or hominids, are a taxonomic family of primates that includes seven extant species in four genera: Pongo, the Bornean and Sumatran orangutan; Gorilla, the eastern and western gorilla; Pan, the common chimpanzee and the bonobo; and Homo, the human and near-human ancestors and relatives (e.g., the Neanderthal).

Seven extant species in our family,  but around 2,000 in the firefly family. Well, fireflies are a family of beetles, and, as evolutionary biologist J.B.S Haldane is credited (somewhat inaccurately) as having said, “The Creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles” (since He made so many of them). There certainly is a profusion of fireflies. I’m tryimg to imagine a world in which there were about 2,000 species of hominids around.


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