West Virginians through the generations have marveled at the intermittent flashes of light that take place in the night skies of late spring and summer, as swarms of fireflies emerge from the ground to perform their annual bioluminescence-enhanced mating ritual.
While such displays can be spectacular, particularly if large populations of fireflies are involved, imagine viewing a light show created by thousands of lightning bugs all flashing at the same time, at the same intervals.
Such displays are created by synchronous fireflies, members of two or three of the 2,000 species of fireflies known to exist in North America. Until recently, synchronous fireflies could be found on public lands in the U.S. only in portions of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest, the Oak Ridge Wildlife Management Area in east Tennessee, and South Carolina’s Congaree National Park.
As of this year, Watoga State Park in Pocahontas County has joined that list.
A now-retired Division of Natural Resources biologist happened to be visiting at Watoga during the 2019 firefly mating season and discovered what appeared to be a population of rare synchronous fireflies. She passed along information on the sighting, including the GPS coordinates for where it occurred, to Mack Frantz, State Zoologist for the DNR, who was organizing a study of firefly populations across West Virginia using data from citizen observations.
Not long after learning about the possible West Virginia synchronous firefly population, Frantz said, the Watoga State Park Foundation contacted him about their Dark Sky Initiative, a project aimed at having Watoga designated as the state’s first Dark Sky Park.
To qualify for the designation, a park must meet criteria established by the International Dark Sky Association. They include being able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye, having night sky brightness measured several times annually to meet qualifying standards, and having only a few domes of artificial light visible from the park, provided they are near the horizon.
Park management must also be on board with protecting and promoting the dark sky as a resource for education and scientific study and to enhance habitat for light-avoiding wildlife species — like fireflies.
“It was great timing to have work already underway to make Watoga a Dark Skies Park at the same time that a synchronous firefly population was observed in the park,” Frantz said.
Ensuring that Watoga’s night skies remain as dark or even darker than present by modifying its outdoor lighting is expected to enhance the park’s ability to sustain resident fireflies.
“Fireflies are extremely sensitive to light,” said Ken Springer of the Watoga State Park Foundation, who writes the “Watoga Trails Report,” a nature and history column, for the Pocahontas Times. “They don’t like to be around flashlights, headlights or bright outdoor lighting.”
In mid-June, Springer was part of a small group led by Tiffany Beachy, biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, who set out to confirm the presence of a synchronous firefly population at Watoga.
Also participating were Mary Dawson with the Dark Sky Park project and Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park Superintendent Sam Parker.
The group arrived at the spot where the suspected synchronous fireflies were seen at dusk in June 2019.
“There were a lot of ferns and mosses there and a creek lined with rhododendron thickets,” Springer said. “I didn’t know what to expect. At first, what looked like regular fireflies came out and started flashing, but then all of a sudden, as if an invisible signal was given, they all started flashing as one. The synchronicity of all those fireflies just blows you away. How do they know how to flash at the same time? It was amazing. It went on for what seemed like about a half hour, and then, all at once, they just stopped.”
“We went back the next night and took chairs to watch the show,” Dawson said. “We were like little kids when the Christmas lights are first turned on.”
Annual light displays produced by mating synchronous fireflies draw tens of thousands of visitors annually to the parks where they are known to occur.
At Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, a lottery system was established in 2015 to limit the number of people visiting a viewing area providing the best look at the light show to 800 to 1,000 visitors per night. In 2019, more than 29,000 people signed up to view the display, which lasts only a few weeks.
To keep spectators from inadvertently trampling the ground from which female lightning bugs watch the display, or using flashlights, which can disrupt the males’ flashing sequences, visitors are shuttled by bus from a parking lot to an access path near the viewing site.
The Allegheny National Forest, where a population of synchronous fireflies was discovered in 2011, is the location for the annual Pennsylvania Firefly Festival, during hundreds of visitors go on guided hikes to prime observation areas.
More than 12,000 visitors flocked to Congaree National Park in South Carolina to view synchronous firefly displays last year, when a shuttle system was initiated to ease traffic congestion.
Synchronous firefly viewing activities at all three parks were canceled this year due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
After Watoga’s first synchronous firefly population was verified in June, Jody Spencer, the park’s superintendent, found a second population of the flashy creature elsewhere in the 10,100-acre park. A third West Virginia population was identified this year at a site along the Greenbrier River Trail, according to Frantz.
Synchronous fireflies are found in humid forest settings adjacent to creeks or rivers, at elevations higher than 2,000 feet.
There is an abundance of such habitat on public land in West Virginia, Frantz said, with the 921,000-acre Monongahela National Forest being a prime candidate.
“There have been at least two credible reports of synchronous fireflies in the Monongahela,” Frantz said. “Who knows? It could turn out that West Virginia has more synchronous fireflies than any other state.”
Springer said Spencer is excited about prospects for both the Dark Sky Park designation for Watoga and attracting more visitors to the park to see the synchronous firefly displays.
“Without COVID, I would assume Watoga could begin offering a few guided firefly tours as early as next June,” Frantz said.
Fireflies, actually members of the beetle family, have been in decline in recent years, with habitat loss and light pollution suspected as primary causes. To get a handle on West Virginia’s firefly population and range, Frantz inaugurated the DNR’s Light Up West Virginia Survey, which enlists citizen observers to report data on firefly sightings across the state. Between 20 and 40 species of firefly are believed to exist in West Virginia.