Skip to main content
Move the World.
synchronized fireflies

Lead image © AFP Contributor / Getty Images

Despite their simple brains, synchronized fireflies have something to teach us about artificial intelligence. A recent discovery on the insect's amazing light shows could help researchers acquire fresh insight into swarm robotics.

Every year, in late May and early June, people from all over the world visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to watch an extraordinary phenomenon, where thousands of male fireflies flicker their abdomens in unison. This coordinated mating display has long been a mystery to scientists. 

"Is it something hard-wired in fireflies that gets them to sync?" University of Colorado Boulder physicist Raphaël Sarfati said, reports Science Alert. "Or is it a little more contextual, maybe based on your environment?"

It turns out, the synchronized fireflies' light displays are even more subtle than scientists realized, and it has to do with the insect's three-dimensional positioning.

To understand how the light show works, the team set up 360 cameras in a wooded area of the national park. They mapped the locations of the flashing insects, while introducing a few new fireflies at a time.

They found that fireflies behave differently when they are alone versus in groups. In turns out, synchronized fireflies "watch" what their neighbors are doing, instead of blinking according to any inherent rhythm. Then they change their blinking pattern to match those around them.

The study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, describes how to three-dimensionally replicate the synchronized fireflies' flashing and flight patterns — indicating how insects with very simple brains can perform complex, simultaneous tasks. Their work could guide the development of new forms of communication and teamwork in swarm robotics technology. In swarm robotics, multiple robots are interacting with each other and responding to their environment — with a desired collection action.

"If we learn the connection between the microscopic rules that govern the individual firefly and the resulting global behavior of a swarm of fireflies, we can use that insight to design behaviors for robot swarms that require some form of synchronization to carry out a task," Anders Christensen, a professor of bio-inspired robotics at the University of Southern Denmark, told Smithsonian Magazine.

Christensen does not work with Sarfati but said Sarfati's work understanding synchronized fireflies could contribute insight to communication and robustness, two principles of self-organization that drive swarm robotics.

"We can use that insight to design behaviors for robot swarms that require some form of synchronization to carry out a task."

Anders Christensen

Like fireflies, swarm robots need to be able to respond to each other. Even more challenging, synchronized behavior needs to continue when one or a few robots break down. Cracking this problem would allow bio-inspired robots to perform complicated tasks just by relying on each other for cues, rather than being centrally controlled.

There are over 2,000 species of fireflies — which aren't actually flies. In some parts of the country, they are called lightning bugs. But, they aren't true bugs either. They are nocturnal beetles. Unfortunately, many fireflies are facing extinction because of habitat loss, light pollution, and pesticides. Due to coronavirus, the National Park Service canceled the "light show" event at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which normally would attract up to 1,000 people.

Despite disappointment among firefly tourists, canceling the event might give the insects a much-needed break. Light pollution — which is closely associated with lots of people — can make it difficult for fireflies to attract mates simply because too much light makes it hard for females to pick up on male signals.

But, in the meantime, firefly enthusiasts can help the cause by participating in Firefly Watch, a citizen science effort to help scientists map fireflies and understand population change.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

Up Next

Insects
The "Iron Man" of Beetles Could Inspire Super-Durable Cars and Planes
Diabolical Ironclad Beetle
Insects
The "Iron Man" of Beetles Could Inspire Super-Durable Cars and Planes
The diabolical ironclad beetle could be the next big thing in biomimicry, inspiring the design of extra-durable planes, cars, and more.

The diabolical ironclad beetle could be the next big thing in biomimicry, inspiring the design of extra-durable planes, cars, and more.

Uprising
Robot Bees Could One Day Save Your Life
robot bees
Uprising
Robot Bees Could One Day Save Your Life
For the first time, a microbot powered by soft actuators has achieved controlled flight.

For the first time, a microbot powered by soft actuators has achieved controlled flight.

Robotics
Cracking the Mystery of How Insects Fly — With Robots
Robotic flying insects
Robotics
Cracking the Mystery of How Insects Fly — With Robots
Scientists made a robot that can keep up with flying insects, helping researchers understand flight physics.

Scientists made a robot that can keep up with flying insects, helping researchers understand flight physics.

Animals
Battling a Locust Swarm From Space
Locust Swarm
Animals
Battling a Locust Swarm From Space
Using data from NASA satellites, researchers are scouring East Africa for areas where a desert locust swarm might be born — so they can destroy the eggs.

Using data from NASA satellites, researchers are scouring East Africa for areas where a desert locust swarm might be born — so they can destroy the eggs.

The Future Explored
We Can Grow 60% More Food By Hacking Photosynthesis
hacking photosynthesis
The Future Explored
We Can Grow 60% More Food By Hacking Photosynthesis
By improving photosynthesis, we can get more food from our farmland.

By improving photosynthesis, we can get more food from our farmland.

Pandemic Preparedness
Learning from Disaster: An Interview with Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh Interview
Pandemic Preparedness
Learning from Disaster: An Interview with Bryan Walsh
Human history is dotted with pandemics. We spoke with "End Times" author Bryan Walsh on how we can learn from them for the future.

Human history is dotted with pandemics. We spoke with "End Times" author Bryan Walsh on how we can learn from them for the future.

Space Exploration
Is Anybody Out There?
Exoplanet Discovery
Space Exploration
Is Anybody Out There?
New breakthroughs in the technology used for exoplanet discovery mean we could find proof for the existence of extraterrestrials in our lifetime.

New breakthroughs in the technology used for exoplanet discovery mean we could find proof for the existence of extraterrestrials in our lifetime.

Superhuman
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Watch Now
Superhuman
Electric Skin Gives Sensation Back to Amputees
Touch is a sensation that connects us all. This scientist created electronic skin that lets people with prosthetic limbs feel.
Watch Now

For amputees, the sensation of a ‘phantom limb’ can be a terrible or disorienting experience -- feeling a hand, arm or leg that isn’t there anymore. But researchers at Johns Hopkins have recognized that these sensations are a clue, and they’re using it to restore the sense of touch.

Coded
The Unhackable Email Service
The Unhackable Email Service
Watch Now
Coded
The Unhackable Email Service
Edward Snowden’s email service of choice wants to make mass surveillance obsolete.
Watch Now

Ladar Levison’s email service counted Edward Snowden among its users. But, when the FBI demanded Levison hand over Snowden’s communications, Levison destroyed the company’s servers. Now, he’s back with a more secure version of the service that could make mass surveillance obsolete.