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Why some fireflies flash in sync

Male Photinus carolinus firefly.
Image courtesy of Andrew Moiseff

At the beginning of summer in the U.S. Smoky Mountains, male Photinus carolinus fireflies put on an unusual show for females of their species, repeatedly lighting up the night sky as they flash unison.

The reason for this synchrony has been a mystery for years, but scientists may now have the answer.

Andrew Moiseff of the University of Connecticut and Jonathan Copeland of Georgia Southern University knew that fireflies use their flashes to find mates and that each species has its own flash patterns.

Male Photinus carolinus firefly.
Image courtesy of Andrew Moiseff

They wanted to know whether the unusual synchronous flashing of P. carolinus males helped the females recognize the flash patterns of their potential mates. So, the researchers placed the female fireflies in Petri dishes, surrounded by blinking lights that simulated the flash patterns of multiple P. carolinus males.

The females flashed their own "come hither" pattern more consistently in response to synchronous flashes than to ones that were out of sync.

The scientists concluded that the synchronous flashing helps females identify nearby males that are moving around the environment. Because a female probably sees multiple flashing males, each of them moving from one place to another, synchronized flashing probably helps the female recognize potential mates in the midst of other, distracting visual "clutter."

This research appears in the 9 July issue of the journal Science.