Google, Waves and Fireflies

By Fabiana Kubke 06/11/2009

Photinus pyralis Firefly glowing.jpg  Firefly (photinus pyralis) glowing

glowing Photinus pyralis by Artfarmer (Creative Commons Share Alike 2.0)

I just learned through ’The Complete Guide to GoogleWave’ (HT @BoraZ) that Google Wave takes its name after the way that characters in the TV series Firefly/Serenity communicated with each other through ‘waves’. Which reminded me of the fireflies in Elkmont in the Smoky Mountains National Park.

When I was a post-doc in the US, I would get on my car once a year to become a bit of a field hand but mostly a nuisance in a research project led by Andy Moiseff and Jon Copeland in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. (You can find one of the first news coverage of the story here).

Jon had been studying synchrony in the flashing of fireflies in Malaysia, because it was thought that it was only there where synchrony occurred. But a local from the Smokys (Lynn Faust) alerted him to a similar behaviour up in the park (and much closer to Jon’s hometown in Georgia).

Fireflies communicate using their light flashes, and in the Smokey’s they show synchronicity.

Photinus carolinus by Andy Moiseff

Photinus carolinus, by Andy Moiseff

A single male will produce a series of flashes in a sequence. When a male starts flashing, other males around it will start their own flashing sequence, in synchrony with the leader. The males around the second set of males then start doing the same, and so on, and what you see (if you are paying enough attention) is a sort of Mexican wave of fireflies flashing in synchrony. It is one of the most amazing light shows that nature has put together, and if you are ever in the area in the summer, I recommend visiting the park visitor centre and asking for a good viewing spot.

When I hear people use the word Firefly I immediately think of the Smoky Mountains (which usually brings me a couple of notches down the geek scale, since they mostly mean the TV show). I am sure I will be reminded of the summers in the Smokey’s every time I go into Google Wave.