It seems kind of magical, doesn’t it? As summer draws nearer and the days grow longer, it’s only natural to start daydreaming of summer barbecues, picnics and downtime. And the glow of a firefly is a requisite symbol of the lazy, hazy days and nights of summer. To be honest, I’d never really thought about it myself, but the answer is positively fascinating. So how do fireflies glow? Turns out it’s not quite so magical after all, since it’s the product of a complex chemical reaction going on inside their bodies.
You see, fireflies contain a chemical in their abdomen called luciferin. When that chemical combines with oxygen and with an enzyme called luciferase, the ensuing chemical reaction causes their abdomen to light up. This light is referred to as bioluminescence, which is when a chemical light is produced by a reaction within a living organism. Most commonly seen on dry land in the glow of a firefly, bioluminescence is actually far more common under the sea in many species of fungi, fish and other marine wildlife. Bioluminescence is a “cold light”— it doesn’t produce any heat, like the light from a light bulb, for instance. And it’s a good thing too, because if a firefly produced heat along with its glow, it wouldn’t be able to survive.
So why do fireflies glow in the first place? The answer to that is the same as the answer to the question of why some men wear so much darn cologne. To attract the ladies, of course! (But far more successfully than the men with the cologne.) Most of the time, at dusk, when you see fireflies buzzing around flashing lights all around you, they’re actually male fireflies doing most of the flashing. That’s because they’re trying to “show off” for the ladies of their own species. There are more than 2,000 species of firefly. A male firefly will light up its abdomen at a particular rate or wavelength, and when a female firefly sees a male from her own species shining in that particular way, she’ll respond with her own light. Hence baby fireflies are conceived.
Another reason fireflies glow (and this one not quite as romantic) is to lure prey. Some females will glow to lure a male to her and then — chomp! — he becomes dinner.
The final reason that fireflies glow is to deter predators. Fireflies are filled with chemicals called lucibufagins, which is hard to say and even harder to swallow — they taste terrible. When a predator tastes a firefly, it learns to associate the glow with the bad taste. So the firefly’s glow actually warns would-be predators to stay away.
There you have it, folks. Something so simple and magical as a lightning bug’s glow broken down into all its not-so-magical component parts. Then again, that makes it kind of magical, right? (Check out the video below of fireflies —accompanied by cricket song — in a soybean field.)
Also on HuffPost:
Angler Fish: Just A Little Clingy
The next time you think your mate is getting a little too attached, just be glad you're not an <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A22547838" target="_hplink">angler fish</a>. According to an h2g2 post, when a male angler fish finds a mate, he clings on for dear life. Perhaps because the angler fish is so horrifyingly unattractive, he feels that any less drastic measure would surely lose her. Thus, he bites into her, attaching himself permanently, linking his blood supply to hers. While she provides nourishment to him, he offers her sperm whenever there are eggs to fertilize. Fair trade-off?
Octopuses: A Man's Greatest Fear
A man's greatest fear? Discovery Science reports that in the <a href="http://science.discovery.com/top-ten/2009/mating-ritual/mating-ritual-01.html" target="_hplink">octopus</a> world, it's actually expected that a male's penis will break off during mating. Fortunately, it grows back in time for the next mating season.
Hippos: Where Poop Is A Turn On
There may have been a "Jerry Springer" episode about this... A male <a href="http://science.discovery.com/top-ten/2009/mating-ritual/mating-ritual-10.html" target="_hplink">hippopotamus</a> attracts a female by spraying her with his feces, Discovery Science reports. And who says bathroom talk isn't sexy?
Flamingos: Just A Touch Of Makeup
Flamingos may use pigments from gland secretions to improve the color of their feathers, thus attracting better mates. A <a href="http://www.sciencecentric.com/news/10102624-beauty-from-the-bottom-up.html" target="_hplink">study</a> from the Estacion Biologica de Donana in Spain found that there was no particular reason for flamingos to alter their colors, except for mating purposes. L'Oreal and Maybelline should look into this new potential client base.
Midges: It Sucks
A <a href="http://science.discovery.com/top-ten/2009/mating-ritual/mating-ritual-08.html" target="_hplink">midge</a> engages in intercourse by sucking out the male's bodily fluids. Enough said.
Garter Snakes: One Big Orgy
For the<a href="http://www.neatorama.com/2007/04/30/30-strangest-animal-mating-habits/" target="_hplink"> Red-Sided Garter Snake</a>, orgies aren't just a fantasy, they're very much a reality. But men, don't get too excited yet. According to Neatorama, it's the females who have sex with hundreds of partners during the mating season. The snake ladies release a pherome to attract the men and quickly a "mating ball" forms, which is, just as the name implies, a big ball of snakes trying to mate.
Porcupines: It's No Hazing Ritual
This <a href="http://science.discovery.com/top-ten/2009/mating-ritual/mating-ritual-02.html" target="_hplink">porcupine</a> mating ritual could easily be confused for a fraternity hazing ritual. But, according to Discovery Science, a male porcupine will shower a female with his urine before mating, and there's no keg stand involved.
Horseshoe Crabs: If You Like Long Walks On The Beach...
It's like an ad in the personal columns: "seeking mate for summertime romance on the beach under a full moon." Except that for <a href="http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/02/animalcourting/" target="_hplink">horseshoe crabs</a>, this isn't romantic, it's just their regular mating ritual, WIRED reports. This anthropod only mates under these seemingly idyllic circumstances.
Elephants: Keeping Romance Alive
Who said chivalry was dead? The male <a href="http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/02/animalcourting/" target="_hplink">elephant</a> takes his time to woo a female, courting her over a period of weeks before mating. While flowers and chocolate aren't included, the male does bring the female food and squirt her with water.
Mosquitoes: A Little Love Song
Who knew such an obnoxious insect could be so very romantic with its own species? <a href="http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/02/animalcourting/" target="_hplink">Mosquitoes</a> flap their little wings, producing various sound frequencies (or to us, an annoying buzz). While the male normally produces a sound around 600 hertz, the female makes a 400 hertz sound. But compromise is key with these buggers. Both sexes are willing to adjust their sound level to create a harmonic match.
Snakes: Like A Magic Trick, Only Better
According to a BBC article, not only does a <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A22547838" target="_hplink">snake</a> have <em>two</em> intromittent organs, but it also has the ability to turn its penis inside-out to better fit the female.
Dolphins: A Gay-Friendly Community
<a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A22547838" target="_hplink">Dolphins</a> are quite a progressive species. Not only are they considered one of the most intelligent animals, but according to h2g2, dolphins also engage in openly gay sex. Male dolphins have been known to practice various forms of intercourse with other males, experimenting with different holes.
Ducks: This Is Just Bad
Apparently some animal species don't find rape quite as abhorrent as we do. The male <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A22547838" target="_hplink">duck</a>, also known as a drake, has a phallus so large that it can be the length of the drake himself, according to an h2g2 post. Due to his size, the drake can have sex with a female without her consent. It is not uncommon for a group of drakes to force a female to have sex, occasionally even drowning her. But the female duck has some defense mechanisms. She has the ability to store sperm in a side chamber and eject it if she is unsatisfied. It is thought that female ducks have evolved to create a complex genital passage due to the threat of unwanted sex.
Bowerbird: Not Just a Bachelor-pad
The male <a href="http://www.nileguide.com/blog/2010/03/10/the-most-ridiculous-animal-mating-rituals/" target="_hplink">bowerbird</a> doesn't settle for just any old bachelor-pad to woo his mate. Instead, NileGuide reports that he takes the time to decorate his nest, collecting feathers, flowers, berries, and shells to beautify his home and woo female Bowerbirds during mating season. The female Bowerbird chooses the nest that she likes best, and settles in with a male for the season. Perhaps men <em>should</em> spend a little more time decorating their apartments.
Cats: The Horror
It may sound like an erotic horror film, but a male <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A22547838" target="_hplink">cat</a> has hook-like barbs on his penis, h2g2 reports. During intercourse, the penis cuts the female, encouraging her to ovulate.