Monday, June 4, 2007

More Luciferase, Please

The title was "Elkmont’s Synchronized Lightning Bugs." Now that’s refreshing. I have been writing about "fireflies" … but of course that’s not what we called them where I grew up. It was a mayonnaise jar of LIGHTNIN’ BUGS that we turned loose in the house.

Whatever you call them, their appearances aren’t limited to Elkmont. According to Park Entomologist Becky Nichols:
"Based on field work conducted last year [2005], the synchronous firefly species was found to occur in all of the major watersheds in the Park. There are areas in the Park with nearly equal numbers of individuals displaying as at Elkmont. Therefore, people who may be looking for a less crowded environment to view fireflies can visit and explore on their own in other low elevation moist, cool watersheds. Some of the Park’s Quiet Walkways may prove to be a good choice for this activity too."

Later in the season, displays will occur at higher elevations as well. There are at least a dozen other varieties of fireflies that are known to exist in the Park. For a summary of the known Park firefly fauna (and their various flash patterns), visit the Discover Life in America website at

The Park Service is running a shuttle from Sugarlands to Elkmont evenings from June 8 – 16. So it’s a short window of time for viewing the synchronized lightnin’ bugs.

In feedback (Saturday, June 2, 2007) to an earlier post on "fireflies" (if you prefer) Heather reported "We saw some tonight in Chattanooga, TN at the Reflection Riding Arboretum."

More on fireflies:

All larvae and many adults produce light; a process which is extremely efficient, with almost no energy given off as heat.

In many North American fireflies, flashing plays an important role in courtship and in recognizing each other.

In the Park there are two groups of fireflies.
In about 8 species, adults don’t flash and are active during the day.
In about 12 species, adults use a pattern of light producing flashes. The timing and pattern of these flashes is unique for each species

Animal Diversity Web, found while compiling this post, is not to be missed. Great site for browsing. As an example, here’s the ADW page for our friend, the wild turkey.

Anyhow, I’d like to be on that trolley out of the Sugarlands this month, but who knows. Maybe I’ll see those synched flashers here. For that matter, lightning bugs seem so scarce these days, I’ll be glad to see them, synchronized or not. Either way, they’re a miracle.

Additional information from the ADW entry on Photinus pyralis:

The chemical utilized by the common eastern firefly for bioluminescence is a complex organic compound, luciferase. Fireflies have recently been harvested by the biochemical industry for this important compound. Researchers discovered a technique to splice the gene containing luciferase into the DNA of other plants and animals. They use this in tracing the inheritance of a particular disease-resistant gene by splicing the bioluminescence gene into the disease-resistant gene in a parent plant or animal. The disease-resistant gene can then be traced in the offspring, because if it is inherited, it will glow.

The firefly produces light in the presence of oxygen, magnesium, and adenosine triphosphate by using an enzyme, luciferase, to oxidize a complex organic compound, luciferin. The light produced is often referred to as "cold light" because almost all the energy is released in the form of light and very little is wasted as heat. The wavelength range of this light spans from 520-620nm, and its brightness reaches 1/40 that of a candle. This bright light is what attracts most of the common eastern firefly's popularity. - ("Firefly or Lightning Bug: Photinus pyralis", 1999; Tweit, 1999)

Yet another site features an ABSTRACT DIGITAL TILE, inspired by fireflies in a Carolina milltown of another time. In the words of the artist (at Firefly Evenings in Carolina):

It evokes memories of certain late nights back in the Sixties when the children in the neighborhood were allowed to stay out late and play unsupervised.
An image in digital leather: purple embossed flowers and a column of glowing fireflies---we actually called them "lightning bugs", but "fireflies" is more fey and poetic--- on either end. A serrated column of deeper purple (more aubergine, less violet) runs down the center, bordered with gold; the outer color is blue-violet.

Beautiful design and nicely done art blog, worth exploring.

And lest I forget, the issue of firefly versus lightning bug showed up in some research investigating the dialect differences between Minnesota and Wisconsin. (Minnesotans prefer "firefly"; Wisconsinites use the terms interchangably.) And by the way, if you go to Minnesota you can ask for directions to a drinking fountain, but once you get to Wisconsin, it’s a "bubbler" that you’re looking for. I would have never known!

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