Sometimes referred to as lightning bugs, fireflies light up the night sky all over the world with their captivating displays. But have you ever wondered how and why these insects glow in the dark?
The answer lies in the production of light through a process called bioluminescence. Around 60 years ago, scientists first began to broadly understand the chemical reactions allowing the insects to produce light. More recent discoveries have enabled researchers to close in on how exactly fireflies produce their enchanting glow.
Fireflies contain luciferin, an organic compound, in their abdomen. Luciferin interacts with calcium and adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the presence of the bioluminescent enzyme luciferase, and oxygen from the air. The result is the production of light in the light organ, known as the lantern, which is located in the abdomen.
Fireflies can control the beginning and end of this chemical reaction, allowing them to manage their light emission. Insects do not have lungs, instead transporting oxygen into their cells through a series of smaller tubes, known as tracheoles. Fireflies also have the ability to control the entry of air into their light organ. When they allow air to enter the organ and oxygen becomes available, the organ lights up, and when it is not present, the light goes out.
Unlike a lightbulb, a firefly’s light is known as ‘cold light’ due to very little energy being lost as heat. This is necessary for a firefly, because if its light-producing organ were to get as hot as a lightbulb, the firefly would be killed.
The interaction of oxygen and luciferin should not ordinarily produce light. Recent experiments have found the oxygen involved to be special – in the form of a superoxide anion. This is a form of molecular oxygen containing an extra electron, and this electron allows the oxygen to cause the chemical reaction to produce light.
The larvae are primarily active at night and as adults each species will have a unique flashing pattern which helps to identify other members of the same species. This also allows for differentiation between males and females. A number of studies have found female fireflies to choose mates depending upon their flash pattern characteristics, with higher flash rates and increased glow intensity being more attractive. The use of luminous mating signals appears to be a more recent development, with some species of firefly not glowing at all, and instead using the ancestral method of pheromone release.
It is also thought by some experts that the light patterns are a warning to predators of their bitter taste, with the bugs producing unpalatable defensive steroids.