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Firefly Flashes

July 25, 2006

A listener asks: What are fireflies saying with their flashes?


Why do fireflies flash? I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Listener Kevin Lane from Whitewater, Wisconsin, wrote to ask whether firefly flashes are a type of communication. Well, Kevin, firefly expert Sara Lewis from Tufts University in Massachusetts says they are. In fact, scientists have recently decoded the flashes of one type of firefly and found that they use the timing of the flashes to signal to potential mates. She says you can try this one at home.

SARA LEWIS (Tufts University):
You can go out with a pen light and imitate the flash of a male, and you can get females of that species to respond to you very easily. You can talk to fireflies.

She adds another type of firefly—one that eats other fireflies—also imitates these flashes in order to lure their prey. Flash us a message at 1-800-why-isit with your science question. If we use it on the air, you’ll win a Science Update