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Thailand’s Firefly Populations Fading Out

August 31, 2008

By Michael Casey / The Associated Press

Preecha Jiabyu used to take tourists in a rowboat to see the banks of the Mae Klong River aglow with thousands of fireflies.

These days, all he sees are the lights of hotels, restaurants and highway overpasses. He says he’d 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 motor-boats. “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.” They then traveled Friday to Ban Lomtuan, an hour outside Bangkok, to see the synchronous firefly Pteroptyx malaccae – known for its rapid, pulsating flashing that looks like Christmas lights.

Another much-loved species imperiled by humankind? The evidence is entirely anecdotal, but there are anecdotes galore. From backyards 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 insect habitat. The spread of artificial lights 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 in Switzerland who 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 if they see one.”

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

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

“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?”

But Faust and other experts said they still need scientific data, which has been difficult to come by.

There are 2,000 firefly species, and researchers are constantly discovering new ones. Many have never been studied, leaving scientists in the dark about the potential threats and the meaning of their Morse-code-like flashes that signal everything from love to danger.

“It is like a mystery insect,” said Anchana Thancharoen, who was part of a team that discovered a new species, Luciola aquatilis, two years ago in Thailand.

The problem is, a nocturnal insect as small as a human fingertip can’t be tagged and tracked like bears or even butterflies, and counting is difficult when some females spend most of their time on the ground or don’t flash.

The firefly’s adult life span of just one to three weeks makes counting even harder.

European researchers have tried taking a wooden frame and measuring the numbers that appear over a given time. Scientists in Malaysia have been photographing fireflies along the Selangor River.

But with little money and staffing power to study the problem, experts are turning to volunteers for help. Web sites such as the Citizen Science Firefly Survey in Boston encourage enthusiasts to report changes in their neighborhood firefly populations.

“Researchers hope this would allow us to track firefly populations over many years to determine if they are remaining stable or disappearing,” said Christopher Cratsley, a firefly expert at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts .

Scientists acknowledge that the urgency to assess fireflies may not match that of polar bears , but they insist fireflies are a canary in a coal mine in terms of understanding the health of an ecosystem.

Preecha, the boatman, couldn’t agree more. He has seen the pristine river of his childhood become polluted and fish populations disappear. Now, he fears the fireflies could be gone within a year.

“I feel like our way of life is being destroyed,” Preecha said.

Why?

No single factor is blamed for fireflies dwindling in number, but researchers in the United States and Europe mostly cite urban sprawl and industrial pollution that destroy insect habitat.

The spread of artificial lights could be a culprit, disrupting the intricate mating behavior that depends on a male winning over a female with its flashing backside.

Firefly Image Courtesy Wikipedia




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