Some fireflies have a mystifying gift for flashing their abdomens in sync. New observations are overturning long-accepted explanations for how the synchronization occurs, at least for some species.
Topics: Biology, Biomimetics, Biotechnology, Computer Modeling, Mathematics
In Japanese folk traditions, they symbolize departing souls or silent, ardent love. Some Indigenous cultures in the Peruvian Andes view them as the eyes of ghosts. And across various Western cultures, fireflies, glow-worms, and other bioluminescent beetles have been linked to a dazzling and at times contradictory array of metaphoric associations: “childhood, crop, doom, elves, fear, habitat change, idyll, love, luck, mortality, prostitution, solstice, stars and fleetingness of words and cognition,” as one 2016 review noted.
Physicists revere fireflies for reasons that might seem every bit as mystical: Of the roughly 2,200 species scattered around the world, a handful has the documented ability to flash in synchrony. In Malaysia and Thailand, firefly-studded mangrove trees can blink on the beat as if strung up with Christmas lights; every summer in Appalachia, waves of eerie concordance ripple across fields and forests. The fireflies’ light shows lure mates and crowds of human sightseers, but they have also helped spark some of the most fundamental attempts to explain synchronization, the alchemy by which elaborate coordination emerges from even very simple individual parts.
Orit Peleg remembers when she first encountered the mystery of synchronous fireflies as an undergraduate studying physics and computer science. The fireflies were presented as an example of how simple systems achieve synchrony in Nonlinear Dynamics and Chaos, a textbook by the mathematician Steven Strogatz that her class was using. Peleg had never even seen a firefly, as they are uncommon in Israel, where she grew up.
“It’s just so beautiful that it somehow stuck in my head for many, many years,” she said. But by the time Peleg began her own lab, applying computational approaches to biology at the University of Colorado and at the Santa Fe Institute, she had learned that although fireflies had inspired a lot of math, quantitative data describing what the insects were actually doing was scant.
How Do Fireflies Flash in Sync? Studies Suggest a New Answer. Joshua Sokol, Quanta Magazine