American Nomad Blog
About this blog
American Nomad covers the best of U.S. travel—from vacation deals to festivals, weekend getaways, travel tips, and more. A seasoned traveler and Moon author, Laura is the perfect guide to help discover new gems when traveling domestically.
- A Southern Girl's Wintertime Adventure in Yellowstone
- One Novelist's Odyssey Across America
- Gearing up for a Family Camping Trip
- Mint Juleps and More at Oak Alley Plantation
- Avoiding Identity Theft While on Vacation
- Money-Saving Travel Tips from Nomadic Matt
- Fashion, Fun, and Convenience for the Modern Traveler
- In Search of Irish Museums Across America
- The Inspiring Journey of a Solo Kayaker
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 2
- Getting Fit for Treks in Yosemite and Elsewhere, Part 1
- Experiencing Yosemite with YExplore
- Two Travel Contests Worth Mentioning
- A Word About the TSA's No-No List
- A Reader's Advice About Airport Security
A Firefly Phenomenon in the Great Smoky Mountains
Earlier today, I learned something that I never knew about fireflies. And, no, I don't mean the spacecraft seen in Joss Whedon's exceptional (yet, sadly, short-lived) television show Firefly – although anyone who appreciates that awesome sci-fi series is typically alright by me. No, by fireflies, I mean the fascinating beetles, also known as lightning bugs, that demonstrate bioluminescence (the production of light by living organisms) and are prevalent throughout the United States. What I learned today, however, is that there are numerous species of these marvelous creatures, including the aptly named synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus), one of at least 19 species of fireflies that currently inhabit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Curiously, the synchronous fireflies are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their blinking light patterns. While naturalists and researchers have only been aware of their existence in the Smokies for the past few decades, visitors to Southeast Asia, where they're also prevalent, have known about them for centuries.
In general, all fireflies require one to two years to mature from larvae, after which they will only live for three weeks as adults. Once fully mature, they generally refrain from eating and instead concentrate on finding a mate. Their characteristic light patterns are actually part of their mating ritual, which allows males and females to recognize one another. Usually, the males flash first, and the females flash in response. Unlike other species, however, male synchronous fireflies often flash in unison, creating short bursts of light, followed by abrupt periods of darkness – a phenomenon that lures thousands of residents and tourists to the Elkmont area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park every June.
Normally, the mating season – during which synchronous fireflies reach their peak flashing – lasts for roughly two weeks in early to mid-June. Although scientists haven't figured out why the dates of peak flashing – when the greatest number of insects are displaying – fluctuate from year to year (and, incidentally, are impossible to predict), they suspect that it relates to temperature and soil moisture. During the two-week-long mating season, environmental factors – such as cool temperatures, moon phases, and post-rainfall conditions – can affect the quality of nightly displays, but that doesn't keep visitors from flocking here in droves. After all, the possibility of witnessing this rare form of simultaneous bioluminescence has made this one of the most popular attractions in the park, luring several hundred visitors every night – most of whom are equipped with blankets, chairs, and flashlights.
Every year, the park operates a trolley service ($1 pp) between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont for those planning to view the fireflies. During this time, no pedestrians or personal vehicles are permitted on the Elkmont entrance road during the evening hours (5 p.m.-midnight), save for registered campers staying at the Elkmont Campground. Typically, trolleys begin picking up visitors from the Sugarlands parking area around 7 p.m. and run continually until 9 p.m., or until the parking lot is full, so it's important to arrive early. As a rule, the firefly show occurs well after sunset, when it's pitch-black in the park.
Although this year's peak season has already occurred (June 4-12), consider making it a part of your vacation plans next summer. Just bear in mind that flashlights can disrupt the fireflies and impair people's night vision, so be sure to cover your flashlight with red or blue cellophane, point the light at the ground, use it only when walking to your viewing spot, and then turn it off immediately. To protect the fireflies and their habitat, you should also stay on the trail at all times, pack out all of your garbage, and, though it should go without saying, refrain from catching any lightning bugs.
If you're curious about this annual phenomenon, watch the above video, courtesy of knoxnews.com, as well as this video, courtesy of The New York Times. For more information about the Smokies themselves, consult Deborah Huso's Moon Blue Ridge & Smoky Mountains or contact Great Smoky Mountains National Park (107 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, TN 37738, 865/436-1200).
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad blog and Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Video courtesy of knoxnews.com / Text © 2011 Laura Martone