ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team: Week 1 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Micah Jasny is a graduate student from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University working this summer as an E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation intern, as part of the ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team. His work is supported through a partnership with Discover Life in America. This summer he will try to discover new species to add to the park inventories in order to better understand park ecosystems and how to care for them. He also plans to help other scientists working in the park with their biodiversity surveys and scientific research. In the upcoming weeks, he will give weekly updates about his forays into the park and report back on his biodiversity research.

ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team: Week 1 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The first weekend of my ATBI/BioBlitz SWAT Team internship, I worked with Discover Life in America (DLIA) interns, Dan and Mark, to help DLIA with its annual synchronous firefly event at Norton Creek. While thousands of people flock to Elkmont to watch the synchronous fireflies, 40 people a night were allowed a special private viewing at Norton Creek. Mark, Dan, and I cycled through working the drink station, pointing people down the right fork in the road, and helping them park. Guests would come in, have some light hors d’oeuvres, and mingle before gathering around in the living room to learn about the fireflies.

Image of Synchronous fireflies at Norton Creek.
Synchronous fireflies at Norton Creek. Photography courtesy of Dan Mele.

Todd started-off the event each night with a slideshow detailing the types and life cycles of some of the more notable firefly species present in the park and the ones we would likely see that night. He described the common backyard firefly, which lights up before diving and pulling up to form a J-shape. Todd told the groups about the blue ghost firefly, which can be mistaken for spirits in the woods since it emits a constant faint blue light for ten to fifteen seconds as it moves through the woods, thus earning its name. Lastly, Todd described the synchronous firefly. I had heard about the synchronous fireflies that occur in Malaysia and had always wondered what it would be like to witness their amazing behavior. The synchronous fireflies in Tennessee blink six times and then go off for a short period. This may not seem incredible, but the thing that sets these fireflies apart is that they all begin to light up around the same time. It is believed that they exhibit this behavior to look like more suitable mates to the females who stay on the ground.

After the presentation had finished and the sun begun to set, we all headed out to our cars and drove part way down the mountain to see the fireflies. As we walked down the road, darkness began to fall in the woods, and small lights started to flash in-between the trees as dusk settled on the forest. With the synchronous fireflies, as one would go off, others would follow and a wave of light would move through the darkened forest. It reminded me of lightning moving through clouds. You’d see one part of the sky light up and then it would quickly move across the heavens until all the clouds above you were illuminated. While it was dark, one could even trace the curve of the hills by the lights of the tiny fireflies. It was humbling to stand and watch this beautiful dance of lights going on around me like hundreds of tiny stars, lighting and then going out.

The synchronous fireflies were not the only ones lighting up the night. Other firefly larvae emit a constant low glow during the night and in one area of the woods it looked like the stars had fallen and lay scattered upon the forest floor. I remember someone saying they saw the big dipper while pointing down into the glowing hill. In and amongst the synchronous fireflies, blue ghosts could be seen, their phantasmal glow moving between the trees. Taken together, it made for three magical nights walking and watching the silent parade of the Tennessee fireflies.

—Micah Jasny

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