Scientists See Fewer Fireflies

The firefly species Luciola aquatilis was discovered in Thailand in 2006. A symposium was held there last week.
The firefly species Luciola aquatilis was discovered in Thailand in 2006. A symposium was held there last week. (By Anchana Thancharoen Via Associated Press)
By Michael Casey
Associated Press
Sunday, August 31, 2008

BAN LOMTUAN, Thailand -- Preecha Jiabyu used to take tourists on a rowboat to see the banks of the Mae Klong River aglow with thousands of fireflies.

These days, all he sees are the glowing lights of hotels, restaurants and highway overpasses. He said he would have to row a good two miles to see trees lit up with the magical creatures of his younger days.

"The firefly populations have dropped 70 percent in the past three years," said Preecha, 58, a former teacher who started providing dozens of rowboats to compete with polluting motorboats. "It's sad. They were a symbol of our city."

The fate of the insects drew more than 100 entomologists and biologists to Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai last week for an international symposium on the "Diversity and Conservation of Fireflies."

Yet another much-loved species imperiled by humankind? The evidence is entirely anecdotal, but anecdotes abound.

From back yards in Tennessee to riverbanks in Southeast Asia, researchers said they have seen fireflies -- also called glowworms or lightning bugs -- dwindling in number.

No single factor is blamed, but researchers in the United States and Europe mostly cite urban sprawl and industrial pollution that destroy the insects' habitat. The spread of artificial lights also could be a culprit, disrupting the intricate mating behavior that depends on a male winning over a female with its flashing backside.

"It is quite clear they are declining," said Stefan Ineichen, a researcher who studies fireflies in Switzerland and runs a Web site to gather information on firefly sightings.

"When you talk to old people about fireflies, it is always the same," he said. "They saw so many when they were young, and now they are lucky now if they see one."

Fredric Vencl, a researcher at Stony Brook University in New York, discovered a new species two years ago only to learn that its mountain habitat in Panama was threatened by logging.

Lynn Faust spent a decade researching fireflies on her 40-acre farm in Knoxville, Tenn., but gave up on one species because she stopped seeing it.

"I know of populations that have disappeared on my farm because of development and light pollution," Faust said. "It's these McMansions with their floodlights. One house has 32 lights. Why do you need so many lights?"

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