The production of light by living organisms is called bioluminescence -- a talent shared by a number of fish and insect species, including the flying beetles known as fireflies or lightning bugs. One firefly species that lives in Great Smoky Mountains National Park -- synchronous fireflies with the scientific name Photinus carolinus -- takes this light show to the extreme. They are the only species in North America that can synchronize their flashing patterns as a group.
These light patterns are part of a firefly’s mating ritual. Scientists don’t know for sure, but they speculate that males may be competing to be the first to light up. Or, by lighting up in unison, they may be helping females to identify the males with the best glow.
Speed dating, in a flash:
- Most species of firefly produce a greenish-yellow light, although one species displays a bluish light.
- Bioluminescence involves chemical reactions that result in the release of light particles, with little or no emission of heat.
- To make light, fireflies combine the chemical luciferin and oxygen with the enzyme luciferase in their abdomen.