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Talking to Fireflies

Talking to

FIREFLIES

 Flashy Fireflies

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bar of light

Twinkling fireflies signal summer evening to many people around the world. Have you ever wondered why and how fireflies flash?

Fireflies use a system of flashes to communicate. They use their light to say, "Here I am", to attract, and even to deceive!

How do they do that?

detailed illustration of firefly from side view with lantern body part glowing

A firefly emits light from a tiny organ called a lantern. It's on the underside of its abdomen, where a biochemical reaction takes place. The reaction releases energy in the form of light.

Morse Code

Humans invented a system called Morse code. It uses long and short flashes or taps to communicate information from far away without using sound. It's like the language the fireflies use.

series of dots and dashes that spell hello
series of dots and dashes that spell hello

Humans invented a system called Morse code. It uses long and short flashes or taps to communicate information from far away without using sound. It's like the language the fireflies use.

 What's the Pattern?

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Every species of flashing firefly has its own pattern. These unique patterns let males and females of the same species recognize one another in the dark.

TRY IT!

Here are the flash patterns of two different species. After you press start, watch the firefly and click on the pattern that you believe it is flashing.

Talk to Fireflies

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Can you communicate with fireflies? Firefly scientists do! To study firefly behavior, scientists mimic female patterns with flashlights and watch the males react with their own flash patterns.

TRY IT!

You can be a firefly scientist. 

Find the flashlight in the lower left corner of the firefly field. After you start, press and hold the flashlight in sync with the female light pattern shown below.

Repeat a few times. If you flashed the pattern correctly, the male fireflies of the same species will flash back to you!

 Fireflies Around the World

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world map
dotted vertical line through east and west North America
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Mesoamerica

In ancient Mayan civilization, the firefly is one of the most common insects shown in art, especially ceramics.

Imaginary Line

In North America, there are no blinking fireflies west of this imaginary line. Scientists do not yet know why.

Tennessee

In some states in the southern U.S., tourists come to watch the spectacular display of flashing fireflies. The male fireflies flash to the same rhythm. This timing increases the visibility of the light, which may increase their chances of finding a mate.

Tropics

The tropics is home to the greatest diversity of firefly species. This region is about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) north and south of the equator.

Europe

In much of Europe, female fireflies don't fly. As adults, they look more like worms. They also glow steadily instead of flash.

China

The larvae of Chinese fireflies live under water and eat snails. 

Japan

Festivals that celebrate firefly season are common in the countryside around Tokyo. In Japanese poetry, fireflies symbolize silent yet romantic love.

Click the place markers on the map to learn more!