Does size matter for fireflies? Experts to study

August 27th, 2008 - 9:34 am ICT by IANS  

Chiang Mai (Thailand), Aug 27 (DPA) Thailand has launched the world’s first international firefly symposium, drawing around a hundred experts and firefly enthusiasts from around the globe to share their secrets on the species’ wild nightlife.”Do female fireflies prefer males with larger spermatophores? Does size matter for fireflies?” asked Adam South, an expert on fireflies’ “nuptial gifts” from the biology department of Tufts University in Massachusetts in the US, as the symposium started Tuesday.

Among US firefly species, the male makes a spermatophore, a capsule or firefly penis, through which he passes on sperm and a big dose of protein to the female in during copulation.

South is eager to learn if Asian fireflies also create spermatophores.

That is just one of the unknowns surrounding fireflies, a flying beetle genus with more than 2,000 species worldwide.

“There is an incredible lot we don’t know,” admitted South. “We don’t even know if all fireflies have the same mechanism that controls their flash. That’s why a conference like this is so important.”

The firefly glow is created by an enzyme called luciferase - from the name Lucifer, or Satan - which is broken down by nitride oxide and oxygen in the firefly, creating light.

Scientists have been studying the firefly for years to find out if the glow has medicinal or industrial uses, but no one has held a symposium dedicated exclusively to the species before, although it has been included in many other global gatherings of entomologists.

Thailand’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment decided to host the world’s first “exclusively firefly symposium” in Chiang Mai, 560 km north of Bangkok, to mark the 76th birthday of Queen Sirikit, the wife of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The queen, well-known for her environmental works, in 1996 donated two million baht ($58,800) to Thai scientists to study fireflies in Thailand as an indicator of the state of the environment.

“The firefly is an index to show if the environment is healthy or not,” said Witoon Katunar, chairman of the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden.

Along the banks of the Chao Phrya River between Bangkok and Ayuthaya firefly displays were abundant just a few decades ago but urbanization, pollution and deforestation have banished the nocturnal insect from the capital for years.

“Now the only flashing we have in Bangkok is on Patpong and the other red-light districts,” said Banpot Napompeth, one of Thailand’s most renowned entomologists at the National Biological Control Research Centre.

There are about 55 known firefly species in the kingdom, with one Luciola aquatilis, discovered just last year by Thai entomologist Anchana Thancharoen at Kasetsart University.

Like most firefly experts, Anchana sacrifices much of her nightlife to the flashy insect.

Her recent lab studies on firefly mating habits revealed that their famous flashing accelerates as the insects start courting and finally copulate, a process that lasts three to five hours.

“Sometimes I have to stay up until 5 a.m. studying them,” Anchana told the symposium, which is being held Tuesday to Friday at the Botanic Resort, on the outskirts of Chiang Mai city.

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