Synchronous fireflies bring magic to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

(Photo: David Killebrew/WATE)

GATLINBURG (WATE) – Every year a lucky few are chosen to view the synchronous fireflies in the Smoky Mountains.

For about a two week period from May to mid-June you can see the fireflies in Elkmonth. This year marks the 13th year rangers with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have shuttled visitors up to see the incredible experience.

The fireflies are the only species of firefly in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing patterns. The light patterns are part of the bugs’ mating display.

The results are breathtaking.

“You have these periods of twinkling lights for about five to eight seconds followed by an abrupt period of darkness for about another five seconds. And that’s when the females from the forest floor do a quick flash and respond to the males above,” said Dana Soehn with the National Park Service.

Soehn says no one is sure why the fireflies flash synchronously. She says competition between males may be one reason: they all want to be the first to flash. It may also be that the males all flash together they have a better chance of being noticed, and the females can make better comparisons.

“It’s almost like going to a light show during Christmas,” said one attendee.

The fireflies take one to two years to mature from larvae, but will live as adults for only about 21 days. Once they transform into their adult form, they do not eat.

The dates that the fireflies begin to display varies from year to year-scientists haven’t figured out why, but it depends at least in part on temperature and soil moisture. It’s impossible to predict in advance exactly when the insects will begin flashing each year.

As the season begins, a few insects start flashing, then more join the display as the days pass. The males fly and flash and the usually stationary females respond with a flash.

They reach a “peak” when the greatest number of insects are displaying. After peak, the numbers gradually decline each day until the mating season is over.

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