By Carol Kugler
Bloomington, IN (AP) – A small portion of wetlands in northern Monroe County is attracting not only a special species of firefly but also the biologists who study them.
Flashes of yellow-green light that lasts for only 5 to 7 seconds was all it took for Lynn Faust, author of “Fireflies, Glow-worms and Lightning Bugs” and an expert on the beetles, to identify the new species of firefly in Mississippi in 2017. That same flash pattern was seen at Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve in Monroe County in June 2018 by Indiana biologist Max Henschen _ in an area no one expected that firefly would be.
Henschen had found the newly discovered firefly earlier that year in Twin Swamps Nature Preserve in southern Indiana and had been told by a friend that similar conditions could be found at the Monroe County nature preserve. After receiving permission from Sycamore Land Trust to visit the preserve after dark, he ventured along the boardwalk into the wetland area to look for fireflies.
After his first visit and discovery, Henschen visited the nature preserve a couple nights later to confirm the flash pattern was really from the new species. It was, so Henschen emailed Faust to let her know he’d found the firefly.
Faust gave the insect (Photurius walldoxeyi) the common name cypress firefly because it had been found only in swampland areas where cypress trees were growing. That is until the discovery at Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve, which doesn’t have cypress trees and has no history of that specific tree.
Henschen’s find led Faust to travel from her home in Tennessee to Indiana to witness the unique flashes of the male fireflies for herself. Faust visited the nature preserve on June 15, first in the daylight to check out the habitat and again after dark to witness the fireflies in action.
The new species is one of about 20 types of fireflies found in Indiana. There are about 125 species of fireflies throughout North America, according to Faust. The best way to distinguish between the species is the flash patterns of the males, trying to attract a mate. The cypress firefly has a very unique flash pattern that’s done by the males within a few feet of the ground or water, always in a swampy area.
“We saw them,” Henschen recalled. “We found an area where there were a bunch of them. She was quite excited by that.”
The next day, a tornado blew through that area, destroying part of the boardwalk that provides access into the wetland area as well as trees and vegetation. The biologists were fearful the fireflies might not have survived the storm and asked Chris Fox, land stewardship manager for Sycamore Land Trust, if he could visit the area looking for the special firefly.
“I had no idea that there were some that hadn’t been discovered,” Fox said. Even with damaged trees obstructing parts of the nature preserve and boardwalk, Fox went out to see what he could find. Because the fireflies only flash after dark, he had to don a headlamp and carefully make his way through the debris to the area.
“The worst damage to the boardwalk and the habitat was in an area where she found an abundance of that firefly,” Fox recalled. “I had no way to compare how many were there before.”
But he did find the fireflies, flashing in the pattern described by Faust.
“I got out there and it was just magical. It was one of those rare moments. It was pretty special to see so many of them,” he said. “I don’t know if there had been any decline of them. They were everywhere. It was clearly a species I’d never seen before.”
In addition to the flashing fireflies, Fox recalled he heard owls hooting in the background and frogs calling to each other nearby. It’s a nighttime visit to the nature preserve Fox will never forget, not only because it was magical but because it reminds him of the reason conserving land for wildlife is so important.
“It’s nice to know that us protecting that area is helping protect this species that we weren’t even aware of,” he said, adding that the nature preserve was picked as a location to protect because of a great blue heron rookery. Then bald eagles moved in, nesting on the nature preserve. Now there’s a special firefly living in the wetland.
Fox and the others are concerned that changes to the wetland from the tornado _ fewer trees and different plants _ may affect the viability of the cypress fireflies in the area. Henschen had looked for the fireflies in other parts of the nature preserve and at the nearby Restle Unit of Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge and found none. Without knowing exactly what plants or habitat attract the cypress fireflies, it’s difficult for anyone to know if they will continue to live and thrive at Beanblossom Bottoms Nature Preserve.
While Faust, Henschen and Fox have watched the fireflies’ flashy displays at the nature preserve, the public is not able to see the show because the preserve closes at dusk. That’s particularly important at Beanblossom Bottoms, because negotiating the boardwalk through the wetland is tricky after dark. Even so, Sycamore Land Trust has plans to let people see the fireflies.
“We do want people to experience it,” Fox said. “We will offer some guided hikes next year when (the fireflies) are out.”