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Fireflies

ELATEROIDEA: Lampyridae: Atyphella atra Lea [et al.]
of the Springbrook Plateau, Queensland, Australia.


Page last updated 07-01-14 male female

Springbrook Research Centre

Our research centre is still conducting an ongoing study of our local fireflies, and has been collecting observation data since 2003. It is the longest continuous observational study ever done of any species of firefly in Australia. 

Our visitors may join in on a conducted tour of our firefly breeding area by booking in via the link below for an informative tour between November 15th to December 20th each year which is the duration of our firefly activity.

 

We are fortunate to have two distinct breeding colonies of fireflies in our research area, from 2009 onward a new study commenced with observations being performed in the new area which is more accessible by vehicle. All the data collected each night is published to the internet every night and can be accessed via these links [click here].

We have four species of firefly in our research area. The most numerous species in the Purlingbrook area of Springbrook Queensland has been identified by Dr. David Britton, Entomology Collection Manager at the Australian Museum in Sydney, as Atyphella atra.
Ballantyne and Lambkin’s key –  Atyphella atra Lea (Lampyridae: Luciolinae).  The species appears to be limited to patches of suitable montane rainforest in SE Qld-far northern NSW,  including Lamington Plateau (incl. Wiangaree), D’Aguilar Ranges, and Conondale Ranges.


Our fireflies are commonly sighted in the in the late spring ( Nov-Dec ), usually in wind protected areas of rainforest with high rainfall.
The duration of their adult lifespan appears short. Ongoing observations of the firefly species found on Springbrook would suggest a lifespan of 4 nights.
Mature specimens retained alive in a moist ventilated flask containing moist forest litter survived for this duration.
Flying specimens caught, observed and released measure average 8mm (all males) in overall body length with the head extended outside the visor shield.
The female specimens found have an overall body length of  6mm.

Male fireflies use a flash pattern to attract the attention of females on the ground and use their very large eyes that are shielded from above by a visor when in flight, to detect responsive signals from receptive females.

Male firefly flash

Female fireflies have only a single abdominal segment in their photic organ underside. Their translucent bodies are used to project a flash pattern upward through their wing shields.

Female firefly flash

Males have 2 large abdominal photic organ segments.

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Observation area #1   2003-2008:
The original isolated observation area in the picture below was selected for the first study.
It contains approximately 2 Hectares of forest, a small clearing of approximately 1100sq.metres, a 4 metre high rock wall and a spring-fed swampy creek.
This observation area is at an elevation of 714 metres, surrounded by well established forest for a radius of at least 1 kilometre, and is relatively protected from low wind due to the height of the forest canopy.

The observation area chosen does not include numerous sightings of fireflies in other areas of surrounding forest, it has been chosen because of the known past history as a reliable breeding ground for fireflies.
2005 note:
The clearing, surrounding forest and observation area were the subject of a large weed eradication program in 2004/2005. Lantana had overgrown the original cleared area over the past 40 years. The bulk of the lantana was pulled in mid-winter 2004 with a tractor and cable, and the regrowth and inaccessible areas spot-sprayed with non-residual herbicide.
The success of this action is remarkably evident with larger than ever numbers of fireflies being visible.

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Observation area #2   2009
orest area at an elevation of 714 metres, on a forested ridgetop in our research area.
This new forested ridge top observation area has been chosen because of the different terrain and more importantly the ease of access for study purposes (gentle sloping ridge top ground without having to negotiate the creek, gullies and rocky outcrops at night in the old #1 observation area.) The only clearing in this regrowth forested area with a canopy height of between 10 to 20 metres is a leaf-littered 4wd track used for access. The forest floor has a low open fern and shrub coverage and the main species are rainforest trees with tall wattles to 15 metres plus a scattering of 25 metre high eucalypts as the upper story canopy. There are no creeks in this area so the area is dependant on rainfall.

observation_area2_sm.jpg (50398 bytes)

Click the image for larger view

Observations of the random and rather erratic flight pattern of a single firefly in still conditions suggest that it can easily and thoroughly cover around 1100 sq.m. of area in one hour flying at a height of between 3 to 5 metres above the ground. Males occasionally decend to ground level to rest on low ground cover foliage, or to check out possible female sightings. Male fireflies are not strong fliers and can be easily caught by hand whilst in flight.
Male fireflies are also attracted to a small flash of light in the red/orange spectrum.
Strong windy conditions, rain and bright moonlight cause fireflies to abandon their quest for a mate as they appear to be unable to fly in strong wind, and their light producing capability and vision appears to be  affected by bright moonlight. When a full moon rises the aerial activity is noticeably less in intensity.
Fireflies are noticeable in the forest areas at Springbrook 0.5 to 1.0 hour after sunset, usually in large numbers in late November to early December.
The duration of the flashing flight display of mass emergences each night is brief, usually around 30-45 minutes. There are exceptions to the normal with occasional individual males persisting for longer periods, and it is usually these 'late flashers' that find a female.
The female on the ground emits light through it's translucent wing-shields making it easier for a male in flight to distinguish between the sexes.  Male fireflies have opaque wing shields, brown/black in colour.

Note: Scrambling over fallen logs in the rainforest after dark while tracking low flying male fireflies really adds a new dimension to night research. A pair of shin pads has been added to my kit.

Rather than adding notes, a summary of observations to date has been tabled below.

The observation time of 19:30hrs was chosen as the earliest optimal time for November and early December.
The method of counting fireflies in order to retain consistency has been to count  4 x 90 "blocks" in multiples ( 5 to 10 fireflies at a time depending on the size of the display ) from left to right, then from right to left and averaging the two at the same time in the same spot each night. The numbers shown do not indicate all fireflies in the surrounding area, only those at the sighting point.


Overall observations suggest that:

1. Energy
The chemical elements required to provide the energy expended by fireflies in light emission is accumulated during the larval stage.
2. Nutrition
The species of firefly being observed here does not feed in the adult stage. It appears to have no visible mouth parts therefore it would have only a limited supply of energy and consequently a short life span (4 nights).
It uses only the existing fuel in it's body and expends it all in it's brief four night lifespan session looking for a mate. The tables above are intended to portray an overall observation of fireflies numbers in an isolated area and the conditions that contribute toward optimal breeding periods.
3. Size
The body length of Atyphella atra with head extended outside the visor shield of captured and released male fireflies averages 8.0mm.  It appears also that we have two closely related but different species in the same area. The same phenomenon has been observed recently in the Natural Bridge area. ( see pics here ).
4.  Predators
Spider webs contribute significantly toward the reduction of the population as a high proportion of male fireflies meet their demise in webs while flying at low level at night.
5.  Vision capability
Observations of the sight capability of male fireflies in large numbers in a given area show that the greater the numbers flashing in an area, the less likely they are to see a female flashing response from the ground.
I have stood beside a female firefly recently in a period of intense male firefly signalling and observed none finding the female who was responding quite brightly.
When the aerial barrage had declined, one lone male detected the female and descended to the target.
This suggests that even though the male has extraordinarily large eyes, they may be 'night-blinded', 'distracted' or perhaps forced to be more competitive by 'out-flashing' the other male fireflies in the quest for a mate.
6. Duration of aerial flashing display
The duration of the flashing flight display of mass emergences each night is brief, usually around 30-45 minutes. There are exceptions to the normal with occasional individual males persisting for longer periods, and it is usually these 'late flashers' that find the females.
7. Larval life span
This has yet to be determined. However observations suggest the life span in the larval stage may be around 12 months.


8. Disproportional representation of the sexes
The ratio of males to females seems to be around 100:1. Females are extremely difficult to find.
The ratio of males outnumbering females at 100:1 has been verified in observations over a 6 year period.
This is the outstanding unanswered question resulting from the observations.

note:   Why are there so few females?  ...........   more work needs to be done on this question, although I would suggest that from observations, 'the male who flashes longest or last',  usually gets the female, and this may simply be natures way of selecting the strongest males for breeding.

Biochemistry of light emission:

Fireflies produce light via a biochemical reaction consisting of :
Luciferin (a substrate) combined with Luciferase (an enzyme), ATP (adenosine triphosphate {the energy
molecule}).
When these components interact in the presence of oxygen, photon emission (light) is produced.
However by comparison, the method of light production by the firefly although involving the same chemical componentry is quite different to that of the glow worm and ranges through a different colour spectrum.
The colour of the light produced seems to the eye to range from red to orange while building up a charge, through to pale green to yellow on ignition.
The firefly is able to generate a distinct surge of flashing light probably by controlling the oxygen supply to the photic organ for use in the chemical reaction. Unlike glow worms that produce continual light emission, the firefly has the ability to "load" small quantities of chemicals to react with oxygen with a quick flash of light, with each small charge being quickly expended. They are able to repeat the process in rapid succession with the light emission being likened to the flick of a flint ignited cigarette lighter.
The production of light by the firefly is very efficient, with very little heat being given off as wasted energy.

Researchers from Harvard and Tufts universities discovered that fireflies use the same gas that regulates blood pressure and heart contractions in humans.
The gas - nitric oxide - once disdained as a mere air pollutant, controls delivery of oxygen to specialized light cells that use the oxygen to fuel chemical luminescence in the fireflies.
Fireflies rapidly flash on and off with the coming and going of the gas, generating signals that identify the species and sex of the flashers.

Photos of light emission

  f_fly1.jpg  Star-trail of male firefly in flight 09-12-2003
  f_fly2.jpg  Close-up of stationary firefly light burst 09-12-2003

 

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Atyphella atra

Male Firefly at Springbrook

Male firefly. Atyphella atra
Note the brown coloured visor shield. After taking to flight, it retracts it's head
under the shield (as per the photo below) to concentrate it's vision downward.

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Note the translucent tail segments.
This is the photic organ wherein the production of light occurs.

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Wing shields open, and having enough of the photo shoot, the subject firefly departs the camera area and prepares to take flight.
Apology for the quality of the photo as the subject had departed
the observation area and was in motion.

Female Firefly


Atyphella atra

Female Firefly
at Springbrook
Found 30-11-2004

Location= At the forest edge of the clearing in the observation area on the ground in the shelter of the root buttress of a large tree.

The female specimens found are translucent, and when they flash (unlike the male with dark wing shields) the light is emitted through the wing shields. Although found on the ground the female having what appears to be wing shields, may be either capable of flight, or they have lost this ability.
To date no female fireflies have been captured in flight, all have been found on the ground.

Atyphella atra

Female Firefly

Underside pic at Springbrook
Found 30-11-2004

Fireflies mating:

02-12-2004

Atyphella atra

After joining, the female quite surprisingly towed the male firefly around for 20 minutes.
Upon separation the male firefly appeared dead from exhaustion but revived some 30 minutes later, and the pair showed no further interest in each other.
Both have been released into a controlled environment for further observation.

2007 note  .....   It appears that we have small numbers of two different species of firefly mingling in the Atyphella atra observation area and further observations will now be required. One has been identified as Atyphella similis.
20-12-2012

Atyphella.
spp

Microscope pic of antennae.
Possible new species.
Will concentrate on this species next year 

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20-12-2012

Atyphella.
spp

Microscope pic of tip of photic organ.

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20-12-2012

Atyphella.
spp

Microscope pic of pronotum LHS top

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20-12-2012

Atyphella.
spp

Microscope pic of pronotum RHS top

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24-02-2012

The four male firefly specimens counting from the left hand side of this pic came from the same breeding area at our research centre. Atyphella scintillans came from Lamington side of Numinbah Valley which is adjacent to Springbrook. 

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3_in_1_best_sm.jpg (13290 bytes) 17-11-2007

Atyphella atra and Atyphella similis
Male fireflies caught in the same display area at the Springbrook Research Centre natural breeding colony.
Observations suggest that Atyphella similis specimens are flying downhill to the Atyphella atra colony from an area approximately 1 km distant and are possibly attracted by the nightly Atyphella atra  display in this concentrated area. To support this hypothesis, no female similis have been found during the 5 year observations in the Atyphella atra 
observation area.

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3_in_1_best_under_sm.jpg (12654 bytes) Atyphella atra and Atyphella similis - Males undersides.

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fff051206_sm.jpg (5480 bytes) 05-12-2006.
Atyphella atra
- Male and female specimens captured in the Springbrook Research Centre observation area

Note the active single segment photic organ of the female as compared to the male that has two large  segments.

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2ff_181105_sm.jpg (7838 bytes) 18-11-2005
Atyphella atra
- Male and female specimens captured in the Springbrook Research Centre observation area

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NB_ff1_sm.jpg (14332 bytes) 02-11-2005

Atyphella Similis  and other male species (topside)
 observed near Natural Bridge.


There are multiple species in the area.( More study needed in this area.)
Thank you to the owners of Quamby Falls Lodge for their participation in the Springbrook area firefly study.

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NB_ff2_sm.jpg (12724 bytes) 02-11-2005

Atyphella Similis and others

Male fireflies (underside) observed near Natural Bridge.

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Lamington_fireflies_sm.jpg (13132 bytes) Atyphella Similis

Lamington male and female Fireflies pic sent in by an interested reader, origin of pic unknown.

Firefly_bris_library_sm.jpg (33524 bytes) Atyphella Scintillans

Brisbane fireflies, 3 male and one female firefly (upper RHS of picture)
Photo courtesy of the Queensland Museum

 


G.Maguire

Springbrook Research Centre.

External References:

Australian Biological Resources Study (ELATEROIDEA: Atyphella Atra)

Ballantyne, L.A. & Lambkin, C.2000   12 31: Lampyridae of Australia (Coleoptera: Lampyridae: Luciolinae: Luciolini)

Ballantyne, L.A. (1968). Revisional studies of Australian and Indomalayan Luciolini (Coleoptera: Lampyridae: Luciolinae). Univ. Qld Pap. Dept. Entomology. 11(6): 105-139

Lawrence (1982)
Firefly larvae have photic organs that produce light. It is generally accepted that firefly larvae use their luminescence as a warning signal to possibly communicate to potential predators that they are unpalatable due to defensive chemicals in their bodies. To support this hypothesis, firefly larvae tend to increase the intensity of their glow when disturbed.
The larvae are elongate, flattened and somewhat narrowed anteriorly and posteriorly. The thoracic and abdominal tergites are sometimes laterally expanded to form projections as in Atyphella. The head is small and retractable and usually concealed by the pronotum. The mandibles are curved and perforate. Abdominal segment 8 bears a luminous organ, segment 9 is terminal and 10 has a holdfast organ consisting of several eversible, asperate, tubular filaments (Lawrence 1982).

Springbrook Glow Worms Research Centre 2001

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