Look at All the Fire-Folk Sitting in the Air!
In which two men of science, armed with flashlights, video cameras, and a 50-gallon garbage can, seek out the look of love in a fiery glowworm’s eyes and succumb to the allure of raw firefly nookie in the wild
By Bill Donahue
Dr. Moiseff, we presume: the bug matchmaker who promotes firefly orgies.
The flashing green light coming out of the fog-shrouded woods was rhythmic and faint and shimmery like a girl in a play by Tennessee Williams, and the scientist moved toward it carefully. It was after midnight. “Hold off with your flashlights!” whispered Andy Moiseff, a University of Connecticut neurobiologist decked out in
a floppy-brimmed hat, khaki slacks, and a multipocketed vest, looking like he’d missed his ride to the Kalahari and accidentally ended up in the mountains of east Tennessee. “Let’s see it in darkness.”
Moiseff was desperately seeking It. He’d never seen It. He was hot for It. And now, he was about to find It. He crept through the maple trees and hunkered down in the dirt. There, on a single brown leaf, lay the Dionysian spectacle that had eluded him for two decades: Two lightning bugs gettin’ it on. The female was on top, emitting a wispy green pulse,
the male was hunkered beneath her, and…what’s this? A third individual was beneath him! A male. Quite horny.
“Three of ’em!” marveled Lynn Faust, a forensic anthropologist and Sunday school teacher from Knoxville, who was crouching beside me. “It’s like a blue movie!”
The bug on the bottom was waggling his genitals now, hungrily, like a drunk at a frat party. “What’s going on?” I asked Moiseff.
“I don’t know!” he rejoiced. “This is incredible!”
What was incredible was the grittiness of the scene, the cold porno clarity—for we were witnessing raw sex in a place of ineffable magic: Elkmont, Tennessee, a ghost town within the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and home to the Northern Hemisphere’s largest known population of synchronously flashing fireflies. Each year, for
roughly two weeks in mid-June, thousands of male lightning bugs congregate at dusk in the hemlocks and poplars around the old, shuttered cabins and signal to prospective mates by flashing in unison. Green-glowing and silent, the males flash four to seven times at half-second intervals and then float with their lanterns turned
off for six full seconds before commencing again. During the long pause after each burst of male flashes, the outnumbered females flicker from the ground below. The whole display is an awe-inspiring reminder that nature has an order more elegant than we humans will ever know. Yes, sing the bugs into the warm southern night,
yes, yes, yes, yes.
This simultaneous group throb also speaks to scientists: It’s a rare example of synchrony in the ecosphere. Some species of frogs can coordinate their croaks chorally in libidinous fervor, and certain katydids attain a synchronous rhythm during their evening chirp sessions. But compared to the fireflies of Elkmont, such displays seem puny. Their delicate
concert of light calls to mind the swooping titanium rhythms that Frank Gehry infused in his design of the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Which is to say, the bugs put on a sublime act in a grand natural theater.
A onetime logging town, Elkmont became a summer refuge in the early 1900s when Pennsylvania timber baron Colonel W. B. Townsend sold a parcel of land 60 miles outside Knoxville to various members of the Tennessee gentry, who built cabins there. By the 1930s Elkmont was so quintessentially rustic that, local lore has it, Walt Disney decided to model Snow
White’s dwarf-filled abode on one particularly quaint home. But this Shangri-la of the Smokies wasn’t meant to last. In 1992, most of Elkmont’s 50-odd homeowners had to vacate when their leases with the National Park Service expired. Now, about the only activity the town ever sees is the arrival of the fireflies in June, accompanied by a hundred or so
curious spectators who assemble in the high grass to watch the bugs do their dance. These are genuine tourists, Kiwanis Club members and minivan owners who read newspaper stories about the improbable lights and come bearing lawn chairs, bologna sandwiches, and thermoses full of Kool-Aid to sip and munch and keep their butts dry as they gaze in wonder.
He likes to watch: Firefly doc Jon Copeland hears a synchrony.
But Moiseff and his colleague Jonathan Copeland, a neuroethologist from Georgia Southern University, aim to own a piece of the fireflies’ luminous magic. They’re cursed with the need to understand. And this year, the objective was to observe the flash patterns of male-female interactions—in other words, to catch a
couple of unsuspecting fireflies in flagrante delicto.
Back in the woods, Moiseff was still scrutinizing the insectile ménage à trois when bachelor number two stalked off in frustration. Moiseff lifted the mating pair’s bed, that withering leaf, to take a closer look at what he called “the party.” The suddenly shy twosome scrambled away, presumably to party on elsewhere. Moiseff was touched. “I
guess they just wanted some privacy,” he said. All around us male lanterns were ablaze, flashing in syncopation. “The code is really complicated,” he murmured, peering into the leaf litter. “It’s amazing.”
There are only a half-dozen academics in the world who study fireflies, and among their ranks Andy Moiseff is the reigning computer whiz. An ebullient 46-year-old with close-cropped black hair, Moiseff specializes in “signal processing”—in other words, the biological methods by which creatures decipher sensory stimuli. During the school year, he
spends his time exposing laboratory barn owls to computer-generated beeps and coaching undergrads whose experiments seek answers to questions like, “Does ‘chilling’ music cause an actual physiological chill?” (It does.)
Moiseff’s first experience with fireflies came in 1973, when, as a senior at SUNY-Stony Brook, he studied the pre- and post-coitus flash patterns of females. Copeland, then a graduate student at Stony Brook, happened to be working on the same project; he was impressed by his younger colleague’s technical ambition (Moiseff was scheming to model firefly
flash patterns on the computer), and felt that it complemented his own musical bent. In his youth, Copeland had dreamed of playing tuba in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but alas, his lungs were not hearty enough. So he focused instead on the “hypnotic” (and very obscure) beats of nature. In 1975 Copeland completed his doctoral dissertation on the rhythmic
way in which hungry praying mantises could be made to lunge after other insects, but he had become equally passionate about fireflies, he said, because “their rhythm involves vision.”
It’s an interesting concept—seeing rather than feeling the beat. Ultimately, decoding the fireflies’ visual patterns could lead to an understanding of how orchestral musicians process signals and synchronize their responses. Or it could leave these two guys broke. Each June for the last seven years, the work Copeland and Moiseff do in Elkmont is
sustained by tiny grants. This year, the two were operating largely on a $2,500 gift that Copeland had snagged from the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association. The scientists’ research headquarters: Room 259 at the Comfort Inn in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a hub of good, wholesome Americana near Elkmont where the gift shops happily stock underpants
bearing messages like “Don’t follow me. I just farted a big one.”
When I paid my first visit to their low-budget HQ, Copeland, 53, was taking a nap, his silver hair an Einsteinlike mess on the pillow. In contrast to his recumbent partner, Moiseff seemed like an eternally bright-eyed grad student, chomping on Double Stuf Oreos and monkeying with a computer program—a swarm of white dots bleeping on the screen,
synchronously. A crate of petri dishes sat on the bed alongside a tripod, a video camera, a still camera, and a bag of potato chips. A large, pale-blue plastic garbage can stood by the bathroom door.
By now, tales of the good doctors’ Rube Goldberg approach must be legion among the bugs. Moiseff once used a garbage can, for instance, to do things like isolate a specimen bug and videotape it fluttering all by its lonesome in 50 gallons of darkness. (Conclusion: The bug chooses not to flash in the can.) He constructed a wind tunnel with a $10 Wal-Mart
fan and used forceps to hang a poor firefly in the blast to test its in-flight peripheral vision. (Conclusion: The bug seemed loath to respond to stimuli.) In one of their more successful experiments, Moiseff and Copeland strung lights on an Elkmont hillside to see if the bugs would synchronize with the electronic flash. The bugs did; the crowd cheered.
So far this year, the scientists’ research has focused on the mysteries of the firefly mating ritual. But they’ve been flummoxed. “The communication that happens between male and female during the actual sex act is completely baffling,” Copeland confided later. He and Moiseff had finally seen Elkmont fireflies mate in the wild, but this only led to more
questions. “Once they couple, do they stop flashing? Or does the female keep signaling males? I don’t know. I’d like to mate a couple in the lab and watch. And take pictures.”
It seems only natural that a firefly’s glow—coital or no—should inspire warm, fuzzy feelings in a scientist, but such impressions are illusory. The alchemic sparkle that lightning bugs give off is, in fact, the product of an unromantic chemical reaction in their abdomens. Two compounds—luciferin and luciferase—mingle in the
presence of oxygen. They glow and are revitalized constantly by adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, an energy source present in every living thing. The whole reaction is “cold,” which means it’s efficient; the firefly doesn’t waste energy on heat.
Bioluminescence—the giving off of light by living organisms—has transfixed learned men for centuries. Both Pliny the Elder and Aristotle mused about dead fish and fungus that emitted unearthly glows, and in his 1627 monograph, Sylva Sylvarum, Francis Bacon described various tests he performed on a piece of rotten
wood that shimmered in the dark. Perhaps the most curious case was that of “the luminous mutton of Montpellier,” confronted by two physicians in 1640-1641, in which the flesh of a dead ram shone at night “like so many glow-worms.” (Eventually leading one of the physicians to wonder, “But how does splendor follow from putrefaction?”)
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were hotbeds of firefly ogling. According to E. Newton Harvey’s 1957 omnibus A History of Luminescence, a Neapolitan naturalist named Fabio Colonna was turned on to the bugs in 1616, noting a little feverishly that “the fiery radiance of their buttocks shines forth.” In 1577, after
returning from the East Indies, Sir Francis Drake wrote, “Our General…sayled to a certain little Island to the Southwards of Celebis…throughly growen with Wood of a large and high growth…. Amongst these Trees, night by night, through the whole Land, did shew themselves an infinite swarme of fierie Wormes flying in the Ayre, whose bodies being no
bigger than common English Flyes, make such a shew and light, as if every Twigge or Tree had beene a burning Candle.”
These were Pteroptyx malaccae, which still make the brackish rivers in Thailand and Malaysia the synchrony capitals of the world. The malaccae mainly sit in the mangroves, lighting them up like Christmas trees. They flash almost all night, exuding so much light that they are used by water-taxi drivers as navigational
beacons. And they are stunningly synchronous: The world’s preeminent living authority on fireflies, National Institutes of Health biologist John Buck, discovered that an individual malaccae almost never blinked more than 13 milliseconds before or after his neighbor.
Buck is now 86 and still at work—he’s currently writing a paper on the evolution of firefly flash codes—but his malaccae research remains the scientific touchstone, inspiring most of the world’s firefly-obsessed academics to journey to Southeast Asia. Copeland made his own pilgrimage to Malaysia in 1992, spending much of his time subjecting
trapped fireflies to a computer-controlled, flashing green light in his hotel room. Later, together with Moiseff, he published a rousing account of his adventure: “The Effect of Flash Duration and Flash Shape on Entrainment in Pteroptyx malaccae, a Synchronic Southeast Asian Firefly.”
Copeland’s trip got him ink in the Atlanta Constitution, and an intermittent kind of celebrity followed. “I started getting these crazy calls,” he said. “One guy saw lights flashing synchronously in the day and said it had something to do with the spaceship that had landed in his yard.”
When Lynn Faust phoned him at his office in Statesboro, Georgia, seven years ago, Copeland figured that he was fielding “another space-alien call.” Faust confessed she was an amateur, though she was also a rugged outdoorswoman who’d learned about snakes and salamanders in a lifetime of summers at her family’s cabin in Elkmont. She waxed nostalgic about a
“light show” there, a rhythmic spectacle that she and her folks gathered to watch from a screened porch on June evenings.
The fireflies she’d seen—Photinus carolinus, a small, red-and-black bug endemic to Appalachia—were not rare, and it seemed unlikely that the United States harbored any species that were continuously synchronous. But Copeland was intrigued. Reaching back to his musical roots, he asked her if she could write a sort
of score describing the light show’s rhythm. Surprisingly, she did. No one had ever sent him anything like that before. So the erstwhile tuba player got in his car and drove eight hours to see the performance.
“It was cold and rainy,” he recalls, “and nothing happened.” He trained his eyes in one direction and caught a few blinks. Then he looked up the hillside, and suddenly Elkmont was on fire. The menfolk were flashing in unison, and their light cascaded down the hills like that giant peristaltic “wave” fans do in sports arenas. Copeland leaped from his car,
feeling groovy. “If it’d been 1970,” he says now, “and if I’d been a doper, the light show would’ve been the most wonderful head-trip ever. It was an ‘oh, shit!’ experience.” Copeland rushed to a pay phone to call Moiseff, and the two scientists laid plans to capture Elkmont’s glorious lights on a surveillance camera.
In Copeland’s rare moments of mysticism, the music from Lynn Faust’s score comes to life in his mind; sometimes the flashing reminds him of a rhythmic recurrence in the false finale of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony.
Apparently head-trippers hear music, too. In the gathering dusk one night at Elkmont, I met a self-proclaimed “professional hippie” named Mack, who’d come with friends to bongo with the bugs. “I want to be in tune with the fireflies—whatever it is they are playing,” Mack said. “You have to connect with the cosmic beat. That’s how you learn things.”
Tapping the elusive cosmic beat seemed to be Mack’s mission in life. He told me how once, while drumming at a Rainbow Gathering, he had synchronized so exquisitely with the flutter of butterfly wings that all the butterflies floated his way. “Well, I’d eaten a lot of psychedelics that day,” he conceded before flopping down to thump out his crooked firefly
song. The old ladies striding by in matching green windbreakers were peeved. I decided it would be best to move on, and traipsed into the woods.
All I could see was fireflies. I tried to feel the beat, to know its twinkling pattern. It wasn’t easy. Not all males start at once. Some wait until the second or third flash to chime in; others lag, releasing one final solo burst after the chorus dies down; and still others invoke the slow single gleam more common to females. I gave up trying to
understand and just stood there, mesmerized.
After a while I introduced myself to a couple watching, rapt, nearby. “It’s a wonder,” said Kenneth Williams, a 73-year-old firefly fan who works as a greeter at Dollywood. He compared the lights with a cave in nearby Blowing Rock, North Carolina, where “the wind blasts right out of the mouth and throws your hat in the air.” His wife, Altha, just said,
“They make me feel like God can do wonderful things.”
I agreed. Then I noticed that the bongos had fallen silent. I went to find Mack. “I should’ve brought congas,” he groaned. “The beat is more like industrial techno than I thought. It gets chaotic; it’s like rave.”
“Or maybe it’s like jazz,” offered one of his bongo partners. “The rhythms keep…shifting.”
The fireflies knew how to swing; the humans didn’t. It was too much for Mack and his crunchy posse to take. “We’re leaving,” announced a hippie chick, who indicated she had some killer spleef on her person. “Wanna go burn one?”
A few days after I got home from Tennessee, I called Copeland in Georgia to see how his and Moiseff’s analysis of new data was going. He sounded ecstatic. “It was a great year,” he said. “We did swan dives into the grass to see what the world looked like from the perspective of a female firefly. We actually looked at the flashes males and females make as
Ah, yes, it all comes back to It. The scientists had scooped courting females out of the Elkmont dirt, taken them back to their dark motel room, and watched the gals flirt with the guys. They’d spotted females emitting a quick, multibeat flash that mimicked that of the males. But did Copeland get his wish? Did he come back with pictures?
“I just made my first blue movie,” he declared. “I put a female in, and she rejected three males. Then I put a fourth male in and he flew down and nailed her.” It was all on the camcorder. Soon, Copeland said, he would review the tape, frame by frame, to study the flash patterns. Tedious? “In a bizarre way,” he said, “it’s
enjoyable. You try to act like a little machine, counting how many flashes there are in each frame, and it produces a high. Sometimes I go into flow state: I see the data differently; I have insights.”
I was glad to hear that he was finding more in that throbbing light show than raw firefly nookie. I thought back to my last night in Elkmont: I’d hiked into the darkness and found Lynn Faust lying on her back in the road, watching the bugs. I lay down a few feet away, and together we peered up into the treetops. “The flashes seem softer now, don’t they?”
Faust said, her voice twangy and quiet. “It seems like they’re almost frantic that first hour,” she said of the males. “There’s pools of light on the ground underneath them and they’re rushing around. Then—I don’t know, maybe they blink themselves out.”
The lightning bugs were floating higher now, up over the inky black branches and on into the canopy. Faust marveled as they faded into the warm summer sky. “It humbles me how little we know about these bugs,” she said.
“We don’t even know the most basic things…”
“…like where the girls are…”
“…or even where they all sleep.”
Bill Donahue is a frequent contributor to Outside.
Photos, top to bottom: Andrew Reynolds; Kyle Hood