Jun 26 2006
12:29 am

At dinner the other night Jay had told us he had been at Elkmont the previous Monday and the synchronized lightning buy flashing was in full swing. This is a rare phenomenon in which the lightning bugs in an area flash in unison. Saturday night we  drove to Elkmont campground to see the light show.

Unfortunately, Saturday was a bust. It's possible the fireflies called the game due to rain, but it's more likely it was just too late in the season. A guy I talked to in the parking lot said that it's best to come the week before Father's Day. During that time he said there are so many people who want to see the fireflies that the rangers don't let anyone park on Elkmont Road for fear of traffic jams. Instead, you park a few miles away at Sugarlands Visitor Center and ride the trolley for fifty cents. More details about the shuttle can be found here. The trolley service described at that link runs from June 9 to 18, which would suggest those are the prime viewing days.

When I talked to Jay today he noted that not only was last Monday closer to Father's Day, it was June 19 and therefore closer to the summer solstice, which was Wednesday, June 21 this year. The summer solstice is the day the sun reaches its highest point above the horizon. For points near the equator it's also the day with the longest period of sunlight. I'm guessing that the summer solstice is a more significant event than Father's Day for insects that shoot light out of their butts.


According to an article published by the National Parks Conservation Association, synchronized flashing was once thought to only occur in Southeast Asia. It wasn't until the 1990s that amateur naturalist Lynn Faust noticed the same behavior around Elkmont and contacted a scientist she had read about in relation to the insects. That scientist suggested she contact University of Georgia biology professor Jonathan Copeland. Copeland confirmed Faust's sightings in 1995.

I had read in numerous sources that Elkmont was one of only two places (or three or four, depending on the source) in the world where you could see synchronized lightning bugs. However, the phenomenon seems to be more widespread, just not well documented. Not only is the Elkmont discovery recent, but in 2005 it was discovered that the synchronous flashing can be seen in other areas of the Smokies.

Based on field work conducted last year, the synchronous firefly species was found to occur in all of the major watersheds in the Park," explained Park Entomologist Becky Nichols.  "There are areas in the Park," she continued, "with nearly equal numbers of individuals displaying as at Elkmont.

The phenomenon seems to be elevation-dependent. I had read that the Elkmont popuation was at 2200 feet, and the Odyssey's GPS navigation system confirmed it. Another source mentions the same behavior in Congaree National Park in South Carolina occurring above 2000 feet. If you're looking for another place in the Smokies or elsewhere to catch the show next year it would seem wise to check your topographical maps and look for sites in the vicinity of the 2000 to 2200 foot contour lines. I'd bet that other synchronous lightning bug populations will be discovered now that people know when and where to look.

More Goofy Trips

Brian A.'s picture

Went for the show a few summers ago

I don't remember if I hit the prime viewing window or not.  In my view, the "show" I saw wouldn't have been worth driving 300 miles to see, but it was kind of neat.  And there are far worse places to spend a summer evening than in the woods. 

Brian A.
I'd rather be cycling.

doug's picture

hmmm, only above 2000 ft? 

hmmm, only above 2000 ft?  Could it be because they are all getting clearer signals from "the mothership" at those elevations?

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