Did you know that the Smoky Mountains has a natural phenomenon that occurs only one other place in the world? For a couple of weeks in early summer in mid June (4ththru the 12th), a rare species of fireflies come into the Smoky Mountains to do synchronized blinking. This species has an internal sensor that lets them know when another firefly is lit. The fireflies can be lit for up to 6 seconds, it creates a wave of blinking lights that is absolutely amazing to see. The only other known location that this happens is in Southeast Asia.
Fireflies are beetles. They take from one to two years to mature from larvae, but will live as adults for only about 21 days. Their light patterns are part of the adulthood mating display. Each species of firefly has characteristic flash pattern that helps its male and female individuals recognize each other. Most species produce a greenish-yellow light; one species has a bluish light. The males fly and flash and the usually stationary females respond with a flash. Peak flashing for synchronous fireflies in the park is normally within a two-week period in mid-June.
The production of light by living organisms is called bioluminescence. Many species of insects and marine creatures are capable of it. Fireflies combine the chemical luciferin and oxygen with the enzyme luciferase in their lanterns (part of their abdomens) to make light. The chemical reaction is very efficient and produces little or no heat.
No one is sure why the fireflies flash synchronously. Competition between males may be one reason: they all want to be the first to flash. Or perhaps if the males all flash together they have a better chance of being noticed, and the females can make better comparisons. The fireflies do not always flash in unison. They may flash in waves across hillsides, and at other times will flash randomly. Synchronicity occurs in short bursts that end with abrupt periods of darkness.
How can you see them? There are Gatlinburg trolleys that go to Sugarlands VisitorCenter to pick up visitors every 20 minutes starting at 7:00pm. They run June 4th thru the 12th. The fireflies usually start lighting up around 9:30pm. It costs $1.00 per person to ride the trolley. It takes you to the Little River Trailhead at Elkmont. The last trolley back leaves at 11:00pm. No private vehicles are allowed into the Little River Trailhead after 5:00pm, unless you are staying at the campground.
Here are the rules;
- Bring a blanket or lawn chair to sit on, a flashlight that is covered in red or blue cellophane to minimize white lights, keep them pointed down and turn them off when you get to your destination.
- Carry a backpack with any refreshments you may need.
- The only amenities available are portapotty’s.
- No pets or alcoholic beverages are allowed.
- If you want to take pictures, don’t use a flash and set your aperture to f11 and take a long exposure on a tripod to get a nice glowing picture.
- Park rangers and volunteers will be around for questions, guided walks and assistance.
- Don’t forget the last trolley leaves at 11:00pm