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The Urban Scientist


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Urban Science Adventure: Catching and Watching Fireflies

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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What do you see when you go into your backyard in the evening time?  Most people don’t even think about being outside at that time until the warm rays of summer touch their skins.  Summer nights mean warm nights where you can be outside until dusk and beyond and see the wonders that Mother Nature has to offer without putting on a heavy coat.

About a week ago, the backyard was newly cut and it was filled with fireflies. I mean, lots of them. My friend and I sat and recollected our adventures catching fireflies as children. I would catch them and hold them in my hand. He would collect them in mason jars stuffed with lots of grass. He would place the jar next to his bed and use the fireflies as a night light.

My years of studying animal behavior have introduced me to lots of interesting things about fireflies. Did you know that there several different species of fireflies? And that the lighting frequency and pattern is indicative of the species? The lighting frequency helps males find females for mating. Now, that I think back, I was interfering with the love life of many fireflies in my youth. Oh, well. Chasing and catching fireflies is a summer time ritual. I encourage kids (of all ages) to look out for fireflies in the early nightfall hours. It’s relaxing and a perfect way to spend time with your family.

There is a species of predatory fireflies, the Photuris firefly that feed on other, smaller firefly species. Female Photuris flies actually mimic the light pattern of other species and attract males who think she is available for mating. Then, womp! She pounces on the deceived males and eat them. Crazy, huh?

You can join the Firefly Watch Project sponsored by the Museum of Science in Boston. It’s an online Citizen Science Project that asks volunteers like you and me to catalog our nature observations and submit them to a database. It’s fun. It’s easy. Sign-up now. And for high school students, I recommend keeping notes on your contributions and let your science teacher know. You might be able to earn community service/service learning credit from your school.

Try this simple experiment: Count the lights

1. Find a spot in your back yard or park where you see fireflies. They usually come out in the evening around dusk. Find a quiet spot to rest and watch.
2. You will need a watch or timer, a piece of paper and a pencil.
3. Locate one firefly and watch it.
a) Count the number of times it flashes at a time. Does it pulse (many flashes in a row)?
b) Use your timer to measure how much time passes between series of lighting time between pulses. Does it flash fast or slow?
4. Pick a different fire fly and start your observations again.
5. At the end of the evening, count how many fireflies you observed. Compare their flashing patterns to each other. Go online and look up the identity of  firefly species in your area!
6. And have fun!

Be sure to leave a comment and fill me in on your Urban Science Adventures!

- Contributions by CaTameron Bobino

DNLee About the Author: DNLee is a biologist and she studies animal behavior, mammalogy, and ecology . She uses social media, informal experiential science experiences, and draws from hip hop culture to share science with general audiences, particularly under-served groups. Follow on Twitter @DNLee5.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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