On the hunt for fireflies in Utah

Scientists find the flashing bugs after a 30-year search.

  • Until last year, entomologists at Utah’s Brigham Young University hadn’t seen a firefly flash in 30 years of collecting insect specimens.

    Brian Wilcox/ Brigham Young University
 

On a warm night in June, Nathan Lord, an evolutionary biologist from Brigham Young University, follows a set of abandoned railroad tracks overlooking a spring-fed marsh in Goshen, Utah, a speck of a town once known for mining.

Midway through the marsh, he and colleague Gavin Martin pause between the railway ties to adjust their headlamps, clip on fishing waders, and scan the reeds below for flashes of light, butterfly nets in hand. The first fireflies emerge shortly before 10 p.m., sending a succession of rapid yellow pulses through the dark. Lord’s compact frame disappears down a steep embankment. It’s usually hard to find fireflies in arid Utah, but tonight, hundreds hover above the water.

“Incredible,” says Lord, a postdoctoral researcher who has loved bugs since childhood. “It’s kind of mind-boggling how something so charismatic can basically escape notice.”

Fireflies have captivated humans for centuries and appear in art and literature from around the world. In Japan, they’re so revered that some communities have set aside riparian zones as protected firefly breeding grounds. Early American pioneers trekking across the Plains marveled at them. In her journal, Hannah Tapfield King, a Mormon missionary en route to Utah in 1853, said the fireflies along the Platte River in Nebraska were “like diamond dust over everything at night.”

Fireflies have been documented in Utah since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until recently that entomologists at BYU, despite over 30 years of collecting insect specimens, saw even one flash. They’re rare, but they’re here, at least for now.

How fireflies evaded detection for so long is not entirely clear. They thrive in moist, dark environments, and many species use specific flash patterns to attract a mate. Perhaps it comes down to limited numbers living in high desert regions. Perhaps it’s timing — fireflies live only for a few months in the summer, and few people are willing to linger in mosquito-infested marshes late at night. Or maybe it’s simply that nobody knows they’re here.

Lord and Martin study in the lab of Seth Bybee, an assistant professor of biology at BYU who specializes in the visual systems of insects. Firefly sightings in Utah may become rarer, Bybee tells me. The state is swapping orchards and meadows — prime firefly real estate — for new housing developments for a population that has doubled since the 1980s, especially along the Wasatch Front.

Over the last few decades, meanwhile, scientists have noted a worldwide decline in firefly populations. Possible culprits include pesticides, artificial light and humankind’s ever-expanding pours of concrete. Teasing out the precise cause is difficult, Bybee says, but he suspects habitat loss and increased light pollution, which interferes with firefly communication systems. If the insects can’t find mates, they can’t reproduce. And for Utah fireflies, relocating doesn’t appear to be an option.

“Fireflies are not a great species for dispersing,” Bybee says. “They’re not only pretty tied to a habitat type … the majority aren’t fantastic fliers. They might have more luck moving places back East, but when you live in a desert, you’re not going to be able to go very far.”

Out in the marsh, Lord and Martin sweep their nets through the air. A single bullfrog accompanies a chorus of crickets, as the nets start to fill with blinking bugs fated for a bath of ethanol for DNA preservation, or dissection, or a pin through the thorax — for posterity. Later DNA sequencing by the team could help them develop a theory of the fireflies’ evolutionary history and geographic distribution.

Waist-deep in the reeds, Lord flips a male firefly over by the wings. A wave of yellow light ripples across its abdomen. Lord places it in a plastic vial where it flashes a few times before going dark.

“Now you have proof: Fireflies do exist this far west,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in situations like this, whether it’s in the United States or in the most well-traveled research station in Costa Rica, and you find a new species literally five feet out the backdoor.”

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: