WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Citizen scientists sought for firefly count

Posted May 30, 2014

Last weekend's Camelopodrids failed to be the meteor shower we hoped for with only a few dim meteors reported by observers around the area. Those who were up early Saturday morning were treated to a beautiful sky full of stars along with views of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Venus depending on when you looked.

One observation I heard again and again was about an more earthbound sight: “There were more fireflies than meteors,” people are saying.

If that's true, it should make it easy for Triangle sky-watchers to help researchers at Clemson University gather data to help better understand how environmental changes impact firefly populations. 

Whether you call them fireflies, lightning bugs or peenie wallies, you can participate in The Vanishing Firefly Project on Saturday evening. Simply count the number of flashes in a one-minute period and share your data via the free iPhone or Android apps or on the project website.

The flash of a firefly is oxidation of the chemical luciferin. A chemical reaction produces a cold light ranging from yellow to an almost reddish green color. It is a really efficient process converting nearly 100 percent of the energy into light. Compare that to incandescent light bulbs which are only 10 percent efficient.

A light switch of sorts is created as the firefly creates nitric oxide, controlling the when the light flashes. Females announce their presence via these flashes, and males create a light show-enhanced airborne dance to impress the female. In short, a mating ritual. It's the same chemical used in Viagra pills for similar but less illuminating purposes in humans. Isn’t science grand?

The Vanishing Firefly Project is a great way to get all ages involved in real science. What better way to contribute to citizen science than spending some time outside on summer evening watching the fireflies do what they do best?

Tony Rice is a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program and software engineer at Cisco Systems. You can follow him on twitter @rtphokie.



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