2006-06-23 / Beauty in the Backyard

Firefly show lights up night sky at Congaree Swamp

By Rachel Haynie

Chief park naturalist Fran Rametta and his wife Beth greet firefly enthusiasts who gathered at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, Congaree National Monument, to see a rarity: synchronized fireflies.Chief park naturalist Fran Rametta and his wife Beth greet firefly enthusiasts who gathered at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center, Congaree National Monument, to see a rarity: synchronized fireflies.

Rare are the places in the world where fireflies light up in a syncopated rhythm. A natural area near Columbia is one of the three known places.

For a brief, usually only two-week period beginning in early June, the phenomenon occurs to the delight and curiosity of scientists. While there are theories as to how or why the fireflies synchronize their blinking, Chief Naturalist Fran Rametta said there's no illumination to the wonder yet, only mystique.

Because the fireflies don't begin their silent light show until well after dusk, the public seldom gets to see them synchronize their mating signals. But Rametta and his wife Beth, who are members of the large Joy Sunday School class at Shandon United Methodist Church, came up with a way last June to bring their class members out for a nature walk at dusk to see the fireflies light up the night skies. This year's encore was a command performance.

"This year the group filled up a bus, and a few cars had to be added so that everybody who wanted to take the walk could be part of the outing," said Rametta, who leads tours and educates the public about the natural wonders at the Congaree Swamp National Monument.

Elaine Bradley, fellowship chairperson for the Joy Class, organized the trip to Congaree Swamp National Monument. "As a class I think we all found it fascinating to witness one of the many ways God has set in motion the rhythm and order of life. Synchronizing as they do is how the fireflies find each other."

Bradley said the naturalists-for-a-night followed Rametta along the trails at dusk. As it became dark they arrived at the best spot for seeing the fireflies synchronize. She said the park let group members use red filters to put over their flashlights so "We could see where we were walking but would not interfere with the phenomenon in progress."

Last year, one inquisitive participant became so intrigued, he set out to learn much more about the phenomenon. Dale Boozer found that only certain species can synchronize their flashing, and Congaree Swamp is one of the few places in North America where this species lives or can live.

The next closest location is the Great Smoky Mountains. Dr. Jennifer Frick, an assistant professor of environmental studies and ecology at Brevard College, described the phenomenon "as if an invisible conductor has just tapped his baton on the podium. One firefly usually starts the chorus, then the rest join in."

Unnatural light, such as car headlights, can set them off. That is why the park rangers provide red filters for flashlights to prevent the introduction of unnatural light into the Congaree National Forest.

Jonathan Copeland, a biology professor at Georgia Southern University is one of the world's foremost authorities on fireflies. He notes, "The firefly has a pacemaker in his brain telling it to flash, and this can be accelerated or retarded.

Much of Copeland's research has been focused around Elkmont, Tenn., where bears and fireflies thrive in the same habitat, making human encroachment tentative. The scientific community of which Copeland is a part is interested in potential human application of the findings.

Researchers are working on a treatment for cancer that uses the same chemical reaction that makes fireflies flash. The challenge is how to deliver key components to cancer cells only, not to normal, healthy cells.

The fireflies will hopefully reprise their natural light show again early next June.

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