Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Fireflies: The Importance of Field Inventories and Basic Science

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature, Wildlife, Nature of Science, Conservation, Sustainability

Ed Hessler

"All of my research efforts, writes Christopher Herkscher, Delaware State University, Maryland, have an underlying purpose: to inform wise land-management decisions for federal, state, and non-profit conservation organizations. Our future depends directly on how well we conserve and manage our ecological resources and ameliorating the biodiversity crisis may be humanity’s most dire challenge."

His research subjects amazed me by their diversity. Consider the following list. Thrushes, avian migration systems, effects of sea level rise and alien plants on migratory birds, fireflies (lightning bugs), dragonflies, butterflies/moths, freshwater mussels and conducting field inventories of less visited and known natural areas.

Herkscher research on fireflies was featured in Smithsonian Magazine (June 2023) by Madeline Bodin.  She calls attention to Herksher's commitment to his research, the closing of a data gap, namely information gathering, and "figuring out what species we have in the U.S. and where they occur." The latter represents an important concept in ecological studies: distribution and abundance - where, how many.

Herkscher works in places many of us do not visit frequently and spend much time in (mosquitoes come to mind): wetlands and bogs during the dark hours of a standard day. 

Madeline Bodin includes some of the details in her story: deficiency of data on fireflies (important in making decisions on risk - are they endangered, extinct (locally), in danger of extinction, Herksher's early career, firefly communication which uses light flashes for reproductive behavior and sometimes deception for food), that not all fireflies glow and where most of them are found, comments on naming new species, public interest in fireflies (growing and includes a field guide), and the dependence of some fireflies "on rare habitats."

Herkscher emphasizes the importance of this kind of research (the article omits a discussion of what the publication end of research involves something I think most general readers would find the numerous details boring).

Herkscher said that the field trip which was part of this story was "amazing... this single bog...had three species of fireflies that, before my paper was published, were undescribed," not known to science. Bodin observes that these new data from the night's work "added a few more flowing dots to the map of biodiversity." 

The bottom line for Herkscher is reported by Bodin. "When you add rare insects to rare habitat types, it creates an important conservation target." This provides evidence that can be used for conservation and preservation of these sites. 
I also liked the essay because it has something to say about variation in nature. Firefly species are different from one another in important ways. Nature is what it is because of several different kinds of variation which natural selection acts on to produce species.


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