The Great Smoky Mountains' Incredible Firefly Light Show

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Today, the rare Smoky Mountain fireflies are a tourist attraction. Twenty years ago, science didn’t believe they existed.  

At exactly 9:27 P.M., when dusk slips into darkness in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the “light show” begins. It’s June, and for two weeks in Elkmont, Tennessee, the fireflies pool their efforts. Instead of scattershot blips of light in the summer sky, the fireflies—thousands of them—pulse this way for hours, together in eerie, quiet harmony. It’s as if the trees were strung up with Christmas lights: bright for three seconds, dark for six, and then bright again, over and over. It continues this way for hours.

As a child, Lynn Faust would huddle with her family on the cabin porch to watch the spectacle. They’d sit, mesmerized by the “drumbeat with no sound.” And though they’d appreciated the show for generations, Faust never thought the event was newsworthy. “I’d assumed there was only one kind of firefly and thought they did a nice show in the Smokies,” she says.

The natural world has long enchanted Faust. In college, she majored in forensic anthropology and minored in forestry. In her twenties, she circumnavigated the globe for three years, visiting islands you could only get to by boat, learning about cultures before they disappeared, pursuing underwater photography. Today, at 60, she’s a naturalist who writes scientific papers and field guides about fireflies. But she wasn’t always obsessed with the insect. In fact, her academic interest began only in the ’90s, when she read an article by Steven Strogatz, a Cornell mathematician, in which he marveled at a species of Southeast Asian firefly that synchronized its flashes. Highlighting how rare this phenomenon was, Strogatz noted that there were no synchronous fireflies in the Western Hemisphere.

This struck Faust as odd. It contradicted the light shows she had seen growing up. As she dug deeper, Faust found that while there had been more than 100 years of colloquial accounts of North American fireflies flashing in sync, scientists discounted those reports, attributing them to lore or optical illusion. Faust knew the truth: that her Tennessse fireflies were every bit as special as the species in Asia. But how could she prove it?

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Fireflies—or lightning bugs—may be the closest thing nature has to a magic trick: lighting the world from the inside out. Technically, they are bioluminescent beetles. Their glow comes from an internal chemical reaction that combines oxygen and calcium with a series of enzymes, including a key light-producing one called luciferin. The bugs flash for lots of reasons: to communicate, to attract mates, to scare off predators. But for creatures so striking, they’re also common. There are roughly 2,000 species worldwide and 125 or more in North America alone, where catching them is a childhood rite of passage.

More than 20 years ago, Faust wrote a letter to Strogatz after reading his article. He connected her with Jonathan Copeland, a biologist and professor at Georgia Southern University who was studying firefly behavior in Malaysia and Indonesia. Copeland was skeptical of Faust’s tale. Reports of synchrony had crossed his desk before but had never panned out. “The dogma said they do not synchronize in North America,” he says.

Still, he indulged Faust, asking her to describe what she’d witnessed by drawing a “musical score.” As a child, Copeland, a tuba player, dreamed of playing with the Boston Symphony. Ever since, music dominated his approach to the natural world. In grad school, he’d studied and documented the rhythmic lunge and strike patterns of praying mantises. He took a similar slant on firefly behavior and found that if people charted the synchronic rhythms they were witnessing, he could separate a bogus account from a real one. Putting pencil to paper, Faust was nervous. “To look at it scientifically is very different from sitting in your rocking chair with a blanket and enjoying it,” she says. “I didn’t want to sound like a complete idiot.”

When her note arrived, “it looked like synchrony on paper,” says Copeland. In June 1993, he was intrigued enough to make the eight-hour drive to Elkmont. He pulled into the cabin’s driveway as dusk fell, no trace of the insects to be seen, and promptly fell asleep—only to wake up to flashes of light all around him. “It was completely obvious—no doubt about it!” he remembers. He rushed to find a pay phone to call his colleague Andy Moiseff. “It must have been about midnight,” he says. “I said, ‘Andy, Andy, you’ve got to see this, they’re flashing synchronously!’ Andy laughed and said, ‘Prove it,’ like any good scientist.” The following summer, that’s exactly what Copeland, Faust, and Moiseff, a professor of physiology at the University of Connecticut, set out to do. It was an unlikely partnership, but the trio made a formidable team. Copeland is a neuroethologist—he studies the neural basis for animal behavior. Faust, an unflappable outdoorswoman and keen observer, knows the area and its wildlife like home. And Moiseff is a computer whiz, with a proclivity for dreaming up theories and building devices to test them.

The three hauled lab equipment, microscopes, video cameras, computers, and insect specimens to sites throughout the Smokies. They started in Elkmont but quickly branched out to determine how widespread the phenomenon was. They hauled bugs back to the lab to do frame-by-frame analyses of the flashes. In the wild, “they were obviously in sync,” Copeland says. But when they repeated the test with individual fireflies in one-gallon freezer bags, the behavior changed. If an insect couldn’t see another, they no longer flashed synchronously. By 1995, the team had the data they needed.

“This was red-hot news in the firefly community,” says Copeland. There are four synchronous species of firefly known in Asia, and they are smaller than the team’s species, Photinus carolinus. “Their flash is wimpy in intensity, but what they lack in flash intensity, they make up in numbers,” Copeland says. They usually remain stationary in trees along the river, unlike carolinus, which fly around in the woods. “Ours are more complicated,” says Faust.

Proving synchrony existed in fireflies in the Western Hemisphere was exciting, but it raised questions about why they flashed this way. And how was that different from what their cohorts did in Asia or, for that matter, from the way their asynchronous relatives behaved in North America and even elsewhere in the park? For the next two decades, Copeland and Moiseff would study the fireflies with Faust each summer, determined to understand these magical creatures. But just as they were getting close, everything in Elkmont changed.

In the beginning, the team had the woods to themselves. “In the old days, there would be the three of us and the odd stranger who was fishing,” says Moiseff. In fact, when Faust first informed park officials about the light show, they didn’t believe her. In 1992, her family had to give up its cabin when the government took control of the resort community’s leases. By then, Faust had noticed that the firefly behavior seemed to be localized: The light show didn’t appear to be taking place even half a mile away from this settled location. She hypothesized that the synchronous behavior could be linked to the unusual conditions near the homes. But when she pointed it out, parks officials assumed her claims were a trumped-up attempt to keep her cabin.

Finally, in 1996, park administrators sent a ranger to the researchers’ campsite to investigate. “It was a funny night,” Faust recalls. “We had this ancient computer set up on the porch and Christmas lights strung across the hill to see if we could control the rhythm of the firefly flashes with the lights going off and on. He was like, ‘Where are they?’ And suddenly, there they were. The guy goes, ‘Oh, my God.’ He said that about six times,” says Faust. The next night they had 20 rangers watching.

By the early 2000s, word had spread. According to one of the park’s supervisory rangers, Kent Cave, “There were fender benders, road rage, crowds of people.” The Smoky Mountain fireflies had become a bona fide tourist attraction. In 2006, the park instituted a trolley service from a parking lot to the viewing area for peak nights, closing access to individual cars. “People were driving up. They might have driven five hours from Alabama or down from Lexington and couldn’t get in,” says Cave.

Today, tourists reserve parking spots in advance online. After the year’s peak firefly emergence has been predicted, reservations for the June viewings go live in late April. The spaces go in minutes. The light show has become the biggest of the park’s special events, with as many as 12,000 attendees in recent years. But as Cave puts it, “Our biggest headache is predicting when these little buggers are gonna flash.” There’s a system for that too. “The pressure of me telling people when to come see the fireflies began 20 years ago,” Faust says. “Like anything in nature, it’s not entirely predictable, but I’ve developed a mathematical way of figuring it out.”

Today, park entomologist Becky Nichols relies on Faust’s degree-day model to determine when the fireflies will emerge. The equation is specific to Photinus carolinus and relies on temperature data Faust and Nichols begin collecting in early March. “You take the high and the low temperatures and plug them into a formula to figure out the larvae’s accumulation of growth,” explains Nichols. “The issue in the past was that we didn’t have good temperature data.” Tiny temperature loggers fixed to trees for air temperature and to the ground for soil temperature have remedied that problem. Faust has her own data logger down the road as well, and the two women compare results as the numbers climb, hoping to come up with the same prediction independently.

Though they’re gratified that the public appreciates the light show, its popularity is bittersweet. The event is too crowded for the scientists to continue studying at the site, so they’ve decamped to other areas in the Appalachian Mountains. As Copeland says ruefully, “We can’t work there anymore because it’s a tourist attraction, and we’re largely responsible for that.”

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So why do Photinus carolinus flash together? No one has quite figured it out, Faust says. But there are theories. In a 2010 paper published in Science, Moiseff and Copeland suggest that synchrony keeps the female firefly from getting confused when searching for a mate. In an experiment using an electronic simulator with light-emitting diodes, they found that uncoordinated stimuli—too many lights coming from too many places at different times—inhibited the female firefly’s response. When flashes were coordinated, the females could clearly send their messages back to the males. Faust agree that synchrony in carolinus is related to mating.

Moiseff, who’s most interested in the firefly’s brain and nerve cells, wonders what it is about the insect’s eyes that helps it process information. Some data has shown that under the right circumstances, a firefly can determine where a flash is coming from. What this could suggest, he says, is that the insect’s brain might break information into different pathways for processing—something that primates and people do, but we don’t think of bugs doing. It’s a problem he’s still studying: “How does a simple nervous system accommodate that? What’s the mechanism?”

Moiseff also points out that Photinus’s synchrony is important not because the phenomenon is so rare but because it changes our perspective on the many ways in which living things interact. With just one proven case in the U.S., the gates opened wide for discovering others. In 1998, Copeland and Moiseff showed that a species on the Georgia and South Carolina coast, Photuris frontalis, was also synchronous. Additionally, the species Photinus pyralis, Copeland says, is “weakly synchronic.” Once you find other species doing this, “all of a sudden they’re not a freak of nature. Instead, they have a solution to a specific environmental need,” says Moiseff.

The last few years, Moiseff and Copeland have kept their firefly studies closer to home. “For the first 10 years, my spouse was very supportive,” says Copeland of his work in Tennessee. “Then she started asking questions about the significance.” He retires from his position at Georgia Southern this year, and, joking aside, considers identifying Photinus’s synchrony to be one of the highlights of his life. “I grew up as a suburban kid afraid of the dark, and I found myself [alone] in the woods with fireflies,” he says. “Serendipity—and a mind set that gets you away from cable TV—plays a role in science.”

Faust, for her part, is still involved with fireflies. She’s working on a field guide that will include images from her collection of more than 60,000 photos. And her family cabin still stands proudly in the same spot where she first saw the light show. But it isn’t quite the same. The cabin now belongs to the park, and she and her family no longer curl up on that porch under thick blankets, waiting for the pulsing spectacle to begin. One thing hasn’t changed, though: No matter how many times Faust has seen the show, Photinus carolinus’s return each summer is still a thrill. “The biggest kick is trying to predict the first night,” she says. “To see that first one and think, ‘Wow, that happened again.’”

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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