IMAGE: In North Carolina USA, male blue ghost fireflies (Phausis reticulata) glow in search of mates. Their flightless wives are very prone to trampling because they stay hidden in the forest …
Photo credit: Spencer Black
Firefly beetles are among the most charismatic creatures in the world, with glowing advertisements that have now made them a popular attraction for wildlife tourists. In the first comprehensive review of firefly tourism published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, an international team of biologists led by a researcher from Tufts University shows that an estimated 1 million people travel each year to see bioluminescence performances with about two dozen firefly species to be seen around the world.
However, the authors also point out that this unique insect-based tourism can bring economic, social, and psychological benefits to both local communities and tourists, but it also threatens to wipe out some local firefly populations if proper protection is not in place.
“With this review of the current state of firefly tourism and the deteriorating health of their habitats, we are calling for action to encourage local communities and governments, as well as the tourists themselves, to act as guardians of the firefly.” said lead author Sara Lewis, professor of biology at Tufts University and co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Firefly Specialist Group, who conducted the review. The IUCN firefly group is working to identify the top threats and protection issues facing fireflies in different geographic areas, and advocates for the most threatened species nationally and globally. Lewis’ previous work on fireflies with the IUCN has attracted considerable public and other scholarly attention and fascination, including in the media such as CNN and The Washington Post.
In recent years, the number of tourists has skyrocketed in several locations in Mexico, India, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and the United States. “In Mexico, the rapid growth in firefly tourism over the past decade is both exciting and alarming,” said Tania López-Palafox, PhD student at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and co-author of the review. “The COVID pandemic gave them a short break, but we’ve seen the damage that too much tourism can do.”
The report is aimed at construction managers, tour guides and tourists and highlights the need to consider ecological requirements in all phases of life of fireflies. To encourage breeding success in adults with fireflies, locations should minimize light pollution: bright lights from buildings, vehicles, flashlights, and even cell phones – all of these can disrupt firefly advertising rituals.
Protecting nearby habitats also plays an essential role. Fireflies spend most of their life cycle in a juvenile larval stage. These juveniles take several months or even years to develop into adult form and, depending on the species, spend that time underground, in leaves, or sometimes underwater. The authors describe former firefly locations along mangrove rivers where commercial development and excessive motorboat traffic have adversely affected the riverfront habitat that was essential to support firefly larvae.
In some locations, the reproductive cycle of firefly populations is threatened by tourists who accidentally trample female fireflies and degrade larval habitats. Women of many species cannot fly and are therefore particularly vulnerable to tourist pedestrian traffic. Learn about firefly mating rituals studied by the Tufts research team in this video.
The report highlighted the popularity of displays created by different species of synchronous fireflies in Southeast Asia and North America, where hundreds or thousands of males fireflies captivate women – and tourists too – by flashing their lights together. Co-author Anchana Thancharoen, lecturer at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, said: “With such mesmerizing lights, the firefly exhibition trees make tourists fall in love at first sight. Our goal with this call to action is to turn that love into support for the Conservation to direct efforts. ”
Further recommendations of the authors are:
1) Tailor-made conservation practices to protect habitats so that all phases of life can flourish
2) Involving local communities as ecological and economic actors
3) Training programs for guides
4) Educational materials for visitors and best practices for changing tourist behavior
Whether managed by local governments or run by commercial corporations, well-managed tourism should educate global visitors to become allies in protecting firefly populations.
“There’s a bigger chance here, too,” said Lewis. “Fireflies have a special fascination with humans, and their fading lights are an obvious and visible reason for preservation. But fireflies can also be a flaw in attracting tourists to the preservation of many other insects that may not be as charismatic, but they are still essential building blocks for healthy ecosystems. ”
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