There used to be thousands of fireflies in the woods surrounding APC Roy Boys’ hostel. The area was mostly devoid of artificial light (the streetlights seldom worked), and all you could see on a warm summer night were the stars and the little glowing bugs.

Fireflies are fascinating creatures. The male flies about, flashing his light. The female sits in the nearby trees and signals back to the male of their choice. She is extremely picky. Once a male is chosen, they mate throughout the night.

Every species of fireflies has a different signaling pattern, like Morse code. But some species eat others. They copy the female signalling pattern of the other species — a male comes looking for sex but gets eaten instead. These predator species are aptly called “femme fatale”.

We can deceive the males too, with a torch, if we know the exact pattern of response of a female of that particular species.

I had come across the topic of fireflies while studying non-linear dynamics. Several species in South-East Asia display a special property of synchronization, where huge populations turn their lights on and off at the same time, resulting in a very pretty display — entire forests light up and go dark following a steady rhythm. How do so many individual fireflies manage to agree on a single rhythm? The answer is very simple, yet it is not completely understood from a mathematical perspective. (Watch this wonderful video for more.)

Fireflies also die together. They disappear overnight, only to be seen again an year later.

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