The National Science Foundation-funded research found that female fireflies are strongly attracted to males who give longer flashes because it indicates they are able to be better fathers by providing more of the essential pre-natal nutrition for their offspring.
"Humans have been fascinated by fireflies for centuries, but we're just beginning to decipher the meaning behind their spectacular courtship displays," said Sara Lewis, associate professor of biology at Tufts. "This study is the first to translate the hidden meaning behind their flashes."
Lewis and her then-doctoral student Christopher Cratsley examined the link between a male firefly's flash the nutritional gift he is able to give to his mate. Their findings, published in the January/February issue of Behavioral Ecology, focused on a common firefly species (Photinus ignitus) native to New England. These fireflies can be seen flashing in open fields shortly after sunset in late June through July.
The Tufts research is part of a broader effort in the field of behavioral ecology to understand how diverse systems of communication - ranging from the firefly flash to human speech - have provided evolutionary advantages in certain species.
Fireflies have long been used by scientists for health related research and to answer basic biological questions. Other recent research has used chemicals from fireflies to test bacteria for antibiotic resistance, giving hope for human health in the battle against drug-resistant tuberculosis in developing countries.
Firefly courtship relies on detailed flash "codes" that help to identify the hundreds of different firefly species. This way the flash codes help males to court potential mates of their own species.
Contact: Craig LeMoult