Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Biologists Expose Hidden Costs Of Firefly Flashes: Risky Balance Between Sex And Death

Date:
September 24, 2007
Source:
Tufts University
Summary:
Biologists have discovered a dark side behind the light shows put on by fireflies each summer. While it's energetically cheap for fireflies to produce their distinctive flash signals, flashier males are more likely to end up on the dinner table. The importance of these two conflicting forces could shift in different firefly populations. It is possible that this evolutionary balancing act might generate entirely new firefly species with their own distinctive flash codes.

Females of Photuris fireflies get their next meal by eavesdropping on the bioluminescent courtship signals broadcast by other fireflies.
Credit: J.E. Lloyd

A new study by biologists at Tufts University has discovered a dark side lurking behind the magical light shows put on by fireflies each summer. Using both laboratory and field experiments to explore the potential costs of firefly courtship displays, the biologists have uncovered some surprising answers.

Related Articles


The research, to be published in the November 2007 issue of American Naturalist revealed that it's energetically cheap for fireflies to produce their distinctive flash signals, but that flashier males are more likely to end up on the dinner table.

On summer evenings, male Photinus fireflies lift off into the air to broadcast their bioluminescent flashes in search of females. Females perched in the grass sit and admire passing males and, if they're interested, will flash in response. Previous research on many different firefly species has shown that females respond more readily to males that give longer flashes, as well as those with faster flash rhythms. This female choice favors firefly males that produce more conspicuous flashes.

"Since females so clearly prefer the flashier males, one thing that's been puzzling scientists is what's keeping these males from evolving longer and longer, faster and faster flashes," says Sara Lewis, professor of biology at Tufts and leader of the research team that included postdoctoral researcher William Woods and two undergraduate students. In theory, there might be some hidden costs to more conspicuous flashes, but what are they"

To answer this question, the researchers set out to look at two potential costs of firefly flash signals. First they measured the energy that fireflies expend while they're producing their bioluminescent flashes. In carefully controlled laboratory experiments, the team used tiny respirometry chambers to measure how much carbon dioxide each firefly produced when they were flashing compared with when they were resting.

"Basically, we're in the business of measuring bug breath," notes Woods. These respirometry results demonstrated that fireflies require surprisingly little energy to produce their magical flashes, even less than what it takes them just to walk around.

Evolutionary balancing act could generate new species

Once the Tufts team established that flashing had such a low energy cost, they tried a simple field experiment to measure the potential predation costs of firefly flash signals. Photinus fireflies are known to produce noxious chemicals that deter most predators, yet make them the top menu choice for the larger predatory fireflies known as Photuris. Using basic materials that included electronic fake fireflies (manufactured by Firefly Magic), plastic toy-dispensing capsules designed for vending machines, and sticky glue, the researchers made two startling discoveries.

In the field, predatory fireflies were attracted significantly more often to the fake firefly signals compared with non-flashing but otherwise identical controls. In addition, when flash signals were more frequent, they were much more likely to attract predators. So even though more conspicuous flash signals provide male fireflies with an evolutionary leg up in terms of attracting females, they also have a potentially fatal downside because they are more likely to attract predators in search of their next meal.

"Every single night, male fireflies are out there flying a fine line between sex and death. For us, it definitely rivals the most exciting television thriller!" says Lewis. "So, next time you're outside on a summer night take a moment to admire the firefly romance and risk that's playing out all around you."

According to Lewis, the importance of these two conflicting forces could easily shift in different firefly populations. Therefore, it's possible that this evolutionary balancing act might generate entirely new firefly species with their own distinctive flash codes.

Funded by a National Science Foundation program called Research Experiences for Undergraduates, the Tufts research could ultimately help us to better understand the evolution of communication in many organisms, including humans.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Tufts University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Tufts University. "Biologists Expose Hidden Costs Of Firefly Flashes: Risky Balance Between Sex And Death." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 September 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070919164811.htm>.
Tufts University. (2007, September 24). Biologists Expose Hidden Costs Of Firefly Flashes: Risky Balance Between Sex And Death. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 28, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070919164811.htm
Tufts University. "Biologists Expose Hidden Costs Of Firefly Flashes: Risky Balance Between Sex And Death." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070919164811.htm (accessed November 28, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Plants & Animals News

Friday, November 28, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Research on Bats Could Help Develop Drugs Against Ebola

Research on Bats Could Help Develop Drugs Against Ebola

AFP (Nov. 28, 2014) In Africa's only biosafety level 4 laboratory, scientists have been carrying out experiments on bats to understand how virus like Ebola are being transmitted, and how some of them resist to it. Duration: 01:18 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
New Dinosaur Species Found in Museum Collection

New Dinosaur Species Found in Museum Collection

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Nov. 27, 2014) A British palaeontologist has discovered a new species of dinosaur while studying fossils in a Canadian museum. Pentaceratops aquilonius was related to Triceratops and lived at the end of the Cretaceous Period, around 75 million years ago. Jim Drury has more. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Tryptophan Isn't Making You Sleepy On Thanksgiving

Tryptophan Isn't Making You Sleepy On Thanksgiving

Newsy (Nov. 27, 2014) Tryptophan, a chemical found naturally in turkey meat, gets blamed for sleepiness after Thanksgiving meals. But science points to other culprits. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Classic Hollywood Memorabilia Goes Under the Hammer

Classic Hollywood Memorabilia Goes Under the Hammer

Reuters - Entertainment Video Online (Nov. 26, 2014) The iconic piano from "Casablanca" and the Cowardly Lion suit from "The Wizard of Oz" fetch millions at auction. Sara Hemrajani reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins