Article image

Tourists who are flocking to see fireflies may be harming them

As firefly tourism becomes more and more popular, researchers at Tufts University are investigating how all this attention may be impacting the fireflies themselves. 

In Southeast Asia and North America, hundreds of thousands of male fireflies synchronize their flashing lights as they attempt to attract mates. 

The experts estimate that one million wildlife tourists are traveling each year to observe the captivating courtship displays, which are performed by two dozen firefly species around the world.

“With such mesmerizing lights, the firefly display trees make tourists fall in love at first sight,” said study co-author Anchana Thancharoen. ‘Our aim with this call to action is to channel that love into support for conservation efforts.” 

The researchers noted that while this unique, insect-based tourism can bring economic, social, and psychological benefits to local communities and tourists, it also threatens to extinguish some local firefly populations unless adequate protections are put in place.

“With this review of the current state of firefly tourism and the declining health of their habitats, we are putting out a call to action to engage local communities and governments, as well as the tourists themselves, to act as guardians of the fireflies,” said study lead author Professor Sara Lewis.

At several sites in Mexico, India, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and the United States, the number of firefly tourists has skyrocketed.

“In Mexico, the rapid growth of firefly tourism over the past decade is thrilling but also alarming,” said study co-author Tania López-Palafox. “The COVID pandemic gave them a momentary respite, but we have witnessed the harm that too much tourism can do.”

The new report highlights the need for site managers, tour guides, and tourists to recognize ecological requirements across all firefly life stages. To support reproductive success among the fireflies, light pollution from buildings, vehicles, flashlights, and cell phones should be minimized.

It is also important to protect nearby habitats. Juvenile fireflies require months or even years to fully develop into adults. Depending on the species, the young fireflies spend this time below ground, in leaf litter, or underwater.

According to the study authors, there are some former firefly sites along mangrove rivers where commercial development and excessive motorboat traffic have degraded the riverbank habitat that was essential for supporting firefly larvae.

At other sites, the mating rituals of fireflies are threatened by tourists who unknowingly trample females and degrade larval habitats. Many females cannot fly, and are particularly susceptible to foot traffic. 

The IUCN firefly group works to identify key threats and conservation issues facing fireflies in different geographic regions, and advocates for the most threatened species. 

The study is published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day