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Late Mates

Science Under the Microscope

Late MatesIn science, you’re always a student, even when you’re the teacher. I realized this by observing one lonely firefly.


As I watched a local population of little brown myotis bats wake up and hunt for some breakfast this late summer evening, I was surprised to see a blinking firefly hovering in my yard. Since the peak for firefly activity in my little corner of the Southeastern U.S. is late July, I was curious about the story behind this little fella. After all, if male fireflies blink to attract mates it would seem that this dude had missed his chance. What happens, I wondered, to “late bloomers” like my little bachelor friend?


Well, according to Dr. Sara Lewis, an evolutionary ecologist at Tufts University, it turns out that the bell curve for animal reproduction has some long tails. Most animals within a species, like the firefly, find mates and carry out their “biological imperatives” during a relatively short period of time. However, increasingly smaller and smaller numbers of flies will continue to seek out companionship for weeks and months outside of the normal window. My bioluminescent friend was one example of this delayed courtship phenomenon.


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In any given backyard during the peak of firefly mating season in midsummer, Dr. Lewis says that there may be hundreds or thousands of eager, blinking males, but only a handful of females. With sexual competition of this magnitude, it’s no wonder that so many males are left out in the cold. It would seem that Mather Nature is sexist. Male fireflies flutter around blinking their abdomens with a species-specific pattern which is then returned with a similar pattern by observant females on the ground. During the summer, this “call and answer” behavior makes for a beautifully orchestrated symphony of green light.


So, what are the odds that the six-legged solo flyer that I observed will find a mate after all? Not good. After a half an hour of watching him hover around the trees and grass, it became apparent to me that his was the only light blinking in the darkness. Perhaps the sad song of the crickets will be some solace to him as he heads home alone again tonight.

What experience made you realize there's still a lot to learn about your subject? Share in the comments section!