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A stacked image of Photinus carolinus in the Smoky Mountains. Credit: Peleg Lab at CU Boulder

The synchronized flashing of fireflies is a summertime wonder — and a scientific mystery. New research maps the flashes in a swarm and suggests how these glowing displays are coordinated.

The big picture: Synchronization occurs in many systems — from the cells in our heart that contract at the same time to pump blood and neurons in the brain that synchronize at the onset of seizures.

  • "As physicists, we're always looking for universalities in many systems," says Orit Peleg, an author of the study and assistant professor of computer science at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
  • Modeling synchronization could help to inform efforts to decentralize telecommunications networks or to control swarms of robots, she adds.

How they did it: The researchers recorded video of thousands of fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee in June 2020 using two cameras.

  • The video was then used to reconstruct where the flashes occur in 3D space and at what time.
  • Flashes from the male Photinus carolinus fireflies started in one location — once there was a critical density of individuals — and then cascaded across the swarm, according to the study published this week in Science Advances.
  • The phenomenon can be seen with the eye, but the empirical data helps the researchers to model how the flashes propagate.
  • The researchers suggest the fireflies take visual cues from others near and far in the nightly ritual to attract females on the ground.

The team also measured the velocity of the fireflies and found they move at about 1 foot/second, but the wave of light propagates at about 10 feet/second.

  • "It is information that is moving along, not the matter of fireflies themselves," says Raphael Sarfati, a physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and an author of the study.

The big question: Are there leaders and followers? In future experiments, Peleg says they want to track individuals rather than the group to try to understand what or who decides to start the first flash.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

Biden: U.S. combat mission in Iraq will end this year

Biden returning to the White House on July 25. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The United States' combat mission against the Islamic State in Iraq will be completed "by the end of the year," President Biden said Monday prior to a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Why it matters: Biden is close to shifting the U.S. military mission in Iraq to a fully advisory role more than 18 years after combat troops were sent to the country under the former President George W. Bush.

How extreme weather feeds inflation

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

This summer's extreme weather is having ripple effects that could raise food prices in the U.S. and disrupt diets around the world.

Why it matters: Climate scientists and food supply experts, like those at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, have long warned about the impact of human-caused global warming on prices, food shortages and hunger.

EA Sports is in expansion mode

EA Sports general manager Daryl Holt (left). Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photos: EA Sports

The biggest player in sports video games has plans to get even bigger — on mobile, in football, maybe even with basketball again — EA Sports general manager Daryl Holt said in an exclusive interview with Axios.

Why it matters: Sports gaming doesn’t get much press, but it’s a surging market with increased competition and lots of players up for grabs.

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