Animal World

Arthropods: Crustaceans, Insects, and Spiders

How is the light in fireflies produced?

The light produced by fireflies (Photinus pyroles), or lightning bugs, is a kind of heatless light called bioluminescence. It is caused by a chemical reaction in which the substance luciferin undergoes oxidation when the enzyme luciferase is present. The flash is a photon of visible light that radiates when the oxidating chemicals produce a high-energy state, which then revert back to their normal state. The flashing is controlled by the nervous system and takes place in special cells called photocytes. The nervous system, photocytes, and the tracheal end organs control the flashing rate. The air temperature also seems to be correlated with the flashing rate. The higher the temperature, the shorter the interval between flashes—eight seconds at 65°F (18.3°C) and four seconds at 82°F (27.7°C). Scientists are uncertain as to why this flashing occurs. The rhythmic flashes could be a means of attracting prey or enabling mating fireflies to signal in heliographic codes (that differ from one species to another), or they could serve as a warning signal.


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