Bird Fact Friday – Romancing a mate

From page 146 of Bird Brain:

Food sharing is a behavior at the heart of many avian pair bonds. Some males offer a potential partner a nuptial gift as a display of their ability to provide. In some cases, gift-giving continues throughout the pair’s life as a means of solidifying their bond.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – Master toolmakers

From page 120 of Bird Brain:

New Caledonian crows sculpt their own tools from raw materials. The first type is made from the strong and flexible Pandanus leaf. A crow bites one end of an individual leaf and pulls off a long strip, detaching the piece. The tool has a sharpened point at one or both ends, and, depending on the leaf, a jagged edge. It is used to catch certain kinds of prey.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – How have bird eyes evolved?

From page 66 of Bird Brain:

Compared to most mammals, bird eyes are highly complex. They contain four color photoreceptors, or cones, capable of aiding the perception of a much wider frequency range of light wavelengths. Birds are even able to see across the entire visible color spectrum, including colors in the invisible spectrum that humans cannot see unaided. There are important reasons why birds have evolved this way, and Nathan Emery describes them in Bird Brain.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

The search for deep life on Earth… and what it means for Mars

Onstott_Deep LifeThe living inhabitants of the soil and seas are well known to biologists. We have long studied their food chains, charted their migration, and speculated about their evolutionary origins. But a mile down an unused tunnel in the Beatrix mine in South Africa, Tullis C. Onstott, Professor of Geosciences at Princeton and author of Deep Life, is on a quest for mysterious bacteria and microbes that require neither oxygen nor sun to survive. When they open up an old valve, water full of microbes and even little worms flows—a discovery with stunning implications. The New York Times has chronicled Onstott’s research in a feature that asks, was there ever life on Mars? And could it still exist far below the surface? That organisms are nourished by our own earth’s core, thriving in darkness encased in hard rock provides major insights:

The same conditions almost certainly exist on Mars. Drill a hole there, drop these organisms in, and they might happily multiply, fueled by chemical reactions in the rocks and drips of water.

“As long as you can get below the ice, no problems,” Dr. Onstott said. “They just need a little bit of water.”

But if life that arose on the surface of Mars billions of years ago indeed migrated underground, how long could it have survived, and more to the point, how can it be found? Kenneth Chang writes:

If life is deep underground, robotic spacecraft would not find them easily. NASA’s InSight spacecraft, scheduled to launch in 2018, will carry an instrument that can burrow 16 feet into the ground, but it is essentially just a thermometer to measure the flow of heat to the surface. NASA’s next rover, launching in 2020, is largely a clone of Curiosity with different experiments. It will drill rock samples to be returned to Earth by a later mission, but those samples will be from rocks at the surface.

In the meantime, what can we learn deep in Earth’s mines? What do we know now about the energy required to sustain life underground? As Chang notes, if Beatrix is a guide, methane could be the answer:

As NASA’s Curiosity rover drove across Gale Crater a couple of years ago, it too detected a burp of methane that lasted a couple of months. But it has not detected any burps since.

Perhaps an underground population of methanogens and methanotrophs is creating, then destroying methane quickly, accounting for its sudden appearance and disappearance from the atmosphere. If Beatrix is a guide, the methane could be providing the energy for many other microbes.

Conventional wisdom is that Martian life, if it exists, would be limited to microbes. But that too is a guess. In the South African mine, the researchers also discovered a species of tiny worms eating the bacteria.
“It’s like Moby Dick in Lake Ontario,” Dr. Onstott said. “It was a big surprise to find something that big in a tiny fracture of a rock. The fact it would be down there in such a confined space slithering around is pretty amazing.”

A full account of Dr. Onstott’s work appears in the New York Times feature, Visions of Life on Mars in Earth’s Depths.

Read more about Deep Life: The Hunt for the Hidden Biology of Earth, Mars, and Beyond here.

Bird Fact Friday – Brain size isn’t everything…

From page 32 of Bird Brain:

To sustain flight, all parts of a bird are small and light—including their brains. They compensate for this reduction in mass in a number of ways; for example, they are able to generate new neurons when they need them.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Bird Fact Friday – How are modern birds and mammals related?

From page 28 of Bird Brain:

Modern birds and mammals are separated by 300 million years of evolution. Their last common relative was a stem amniote, a creature with fully terrestrially adapted eggs, similar to a modern day amphibian. All modern families of mammals, reptiles, and birds evolved brains from the basic neural plan in this stem amniote.

Bird Brain
An Exploration of Avian Intelligence
Nathan Emery
With a foreword by Frans de Waal
Introduction

EmeryBirds have not been known for their high IQs, which is why a person of questionable intelligence is sometimes called a “birdbrain.” Yet in the past two decades, the study of avian intelligence has witnessed dramatic advances. From a time when birds were seen as simple instinct machines responding only to stimuli in their external worlds, we now know that some birds have complex internal worlds as well. This beautifully illustrated book provides an engaging exploration of the avian mind, revealing how science is exploding one of the most widespread myths about our feathered friends—and changing the way we think about intelligence in other animals as well.

Bird Brain looks at the structures and functions of the avian brain, and describes the extraordinary behaviors that different types of avian intelligence give rise to. It offers insights into crows, jays, magpies, and other corvids—the “masterminds” of the avian world—as well as parrots and some less-studied species from around the world. This lively and accessible book shows how birds have sophisticated brains with abilities previously thought to be uniquely human, such as mental time travel, self-recognition, empathy, problem solving, imagination, and insight.

Written by a leading expert and featuring a foreword by Frans de Waal, renowned for his work on animal intelligence, Bird Brain shines critical new light on the mental lives of birds.

Mark Vellend: A book is everything a tweet is not (but please tweet about my book)

by Mark Vellend

This post appears concurrently on Dynamic Ecology.

VellendI was not at the ESA meeting this year, but a handful of advance copies of my book, The Theory of Ecological Communities, were, and Margaret Kosmala was kind enough to send me a photo of the first buyers. I’d like to be able to play it cool and say this was just another ho-hum moment in the life of a scientist, but it wasn’t. I stared at the photo for a good while with a huge smile on my face. Maybe that was just because smiling is contagious and it was instinctual to smile back at the two people smiling at me through the screen. But there was also a sense of deep gratification. Following in the footsteps of some of my scientific heroes, my name was on the cover of a green and yellow book, the book was now born, and at least two people other than my Mom and Dad were willing to pay money for it. Success!

Writing a book is a teeny bit like having a child, but also not like it at all. The similarities: long gestation period, intense anticipation for its arrival, major investment in its success, worry about its uncertain future, and sometimes wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into. The differences: I (gender: male) actually did most of the work this time getting it to parturition, books are decidedly precocial (no diapers, bottles, tantrums, lunch boxes, or swimming lessons), I’m not sure anything I do now will influence its future, and although one might say the journey was difficult at times (f*$%ing index!), it’s not even in the same universe…I’ll just stop there instead of pretending that words can do justice to the difference on this point (just received stink eye from across the room). I guess I’m just trying to say that there’s a bit of emotion involved.

This post is the last (I think) in a short series based on thoughts that grew out of the process of writing the book. The others (here, here, and here) focused largely on scientific issues that flowed directly out of the contents of the book. In addition to the little story and handful of thoughts above, I figured I’d now step back from the content of the book, and share some thoughts on writing books in general. (Pretty thin cover story for shamelessly advertising a just-released book now available from amazon.com, I know.) Before diving into this project, I had a short-lived but intense bout of wondering why anyone would write a really long document that people need to pay for in an age when nobody reads anything they can’t download for free. Now I can think of several reasons:

(1) The premise of my doubt isn’t actually true. Many ecologists do value in-depth treatments of broad topics (I certainly do) and many even value the physical book they can hold in their hands. Long live books.

(2) A contract focuses the mind. Had I decided to just write the book as some kind of online wiki (an idea at one point), I’m not sure I would have had the discipline to invest as much as I did in making it a coherent whole. A contract, timelines, formal guidelines, an encouraging editor, and the happy thought of holding a physical book in my hand one day almost certainly helped the book become a better scientific contribution than it otherwise would have been.

(3) Books endure for longer than papers. I have no evidence to support that claim, but when I think of the reference sections of my own papers, I’m pretty sure the book:paper ratio increases as you go back in time. Even if the ideas in it become obsolete, a book endures as an historical signpost, defining the state of the field at a particular point in time, in a way that papers rarely do (in my opinion). Even if scientists have no use for my book in 50 years, I can imagine historians of ecology finding it useful from time to time, long after I’m dead and gone. (Why anyone should care about the fate their writings after they’re dead and gone is an interesting existential question, but I’m happy enough to accept most of us just do seem to care.)

(4) A book is everything that a tweet is not. We consume information in increasingly smaller and faster bits, and the smaller the bit, the less the author is likely to have reflected deeply on its content. I love reading books because I can feel the intellectual depth and reflection shine through, helping advance my own understanding and appreciation of the issues to a greater extent than you’d typically get from reading a stack of papers of the same length. None of which changes the fact that I still want you to tweet my book, without thinking about it for more than a second (go! do it now!). To make it even easier, here’s a tweet from Princeton University Press for you to re-tweet.

(5) Intellectual satisfaction. During no time since my Ph.D. did I dive as deeply and broadly into the literature as I did when writing the book. Thoughts swirled, ideas popped up, links were made between previously disparate things. It’s hard to separate the writing the book itself from being on sabbatical as the source of satisfaction derived from this, but it was refreshing either way.

As a final thought, if you’re reading this wondering if you should write a book, and you can find the time to do it*, I say go for it. I assume that the fact that you’re wondering means you already have an idea what the book would be about, which is an obvious pre-requisite. In all likelihood, it will be gratifying and stimulating for you, and your field of study will be better for it. If you read my book, please let me know what you think, positive or negative (but don’t be mean or nasty). I hope it sparks some interesting conversations.

* This certainly varies between people and types of books, but I’d say you want at least a year during which you can devote a big chunk of your efforts just to this one project.

From “rolling stone” to World’s Best Dad: Richard Bribiescas on fathers

How Men Age jacketWhy is paternal investment so rare in the animal world? Why do some human fathers choose the caring route, while others don’t? Biological anthropologist Richard Bribiescas, author of How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals About Male Health and Mortality, reveals how many of the physical and behavioral changes that we negatively associate with male aging may have actually facilitated the emergence of positive traits. These traits, including how we parent, have been crucial to our success as a species. We caught up with Richard for a special Father’s Day Q&A.

Many in the animal kingdom aren’t noted for being the best fathers. What’s the evolutionary significance?

Chimps aren’t very good fathers. They just aren’t. They don’t care for their offspring, provide food, or offer any assistance to moms. Don’t get me wrong, chimpanzees are noble creatures who merit our stewardship as well as the common courtesy of not destroying their forests. They’re just not the fatherly type. In fairness to our great ape cousins, most males in the natural world won’t be earning waffles in bed. With a few exceptions such as certain South American monkeys 1, most mammalian males are unlikely to earn a “World’s Best Dad” coffee mug on Father’s Day. Men however can be terrific dads with paternal care being one of the hallmarks of our species. Human males often invest significant amounts of time and resources in their offspring. This is true in modern industrialized societies as well as hunter/gatherer groups. Pass the butter and maple syrup.

Why is paternal investment so rare in the animal world? There are several evolutionary reasons but one especially salient explanation is that caring for offspring requires knowing who your offspring are. This is known as paternal uncertainty and is evident in all species that have internal fertilization. In humans, estimates of paternal misidentification when asking individuals to identify their fathers and then testing that assumption genetically ranges from one to around ten percent, depending on the study and population 2. Conservatively that means for every hundred readers, at least one of you was fathered by a man who is not the recipient of your Father’s Day card. But don’t freak out. This simply means that women are just as likely as men to evolve a range of reproductive strategies. Plus the odds are still in your favor of being correct so there’s no need to forward the mail.

A recent finding that illustrates the evolutionary significance of paternal investment is the capacity for men to display different reproductive states. This has long been observed in women since non-pregnant, pregnant, and lactating states are readily visible with numerous associated hormone changes. In men, different reproductive states are less obvious but evident when you look at reproductive hormones such as testosterone. Anthropologists Peter Gray and Lee Gettler have demonstrated this in numerous cross-cultural studies that show testosterone declines in response to fatherhood 3,4. This is more evident when men are in paired relationships with women.

Then what about male/male relationships and gay fathers?

Good question. We’ll get to that in a bit. So what is the significance of lower testosterone in association with fatherhood? It is still unclear but declines in testosterone may have behavioral, immunological, or metabolic effects that promote paternal investment. Stay tuned.

But fathering children is not the same as being fatherly. Again, hormones provide a spiffy way of getting at this subtle but important point. Anthropologist Martin Muller and colleagues looked at testosterone levels in association with fatherhood in two African societies, the Datoga who are cattle herding people in which the men do not commonly engage in childcare and the Hadza, an adjacent population of hunter/gatherers in which the men regularly hold and care for their children. Testosterone levels were not significantly different between the two populations even when looking at paternal status. But when Muller and colleagues looked at within group testosterone levels in association with having their children close by, interesting differences emerged. When their children were around, Hadza men were much more engaged with them compared to Datoga men who do not pay much attention to their children. Among the Hadza testosterone levels were significantly lower when children were in their household compared to when they were not around. The presence or absence of children among the Datoga had no influence on testosterone levels 5. This suggests that paternal engagement is important to any changes in testosterone. Caring and engagement makes a difference.

What does it mean to be a good father?

While human males are unique in their potential to be doting fathers, they also exhibit a much broader spectrum of paternal behaviors compared to other primates and mammals. Men can be extremely caring to simply providing food to being infanticidal. As a boy growing up in the Watts area of south central Los Angeles in the ‘60’s and 70’s, my friends and I listened to a lot of The Temptations. Among their hits was “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”, a song that tells the story of children asking their mother about their estranged, wandering father. “Papa was never much on thinkin’, spent much of his time chasing women and drinkin’…” Why some men choose the caring route while others do not is unclear. Evolutionary theory suggests that in environments with lots of hazards and a low probability of living a long life, caring for offspring may take a backseat to more risky reproductive strategies such as seeking out additional mates in lieu of investing in family. This is true of both men and women 6. Since humans have evolved the ability to thrive in a broad range of ecological and social settings, it makes sense that behavioral biology of fatherhood would be broad and malleable7,8.

Let’s go back to the question of gay dads. There is no reason to assume that caring for children should be limited to straight men but adding the variable of sexual orientation is an interesting question given the range of variability in reproductive behavior in humans. Researchers examined brain scans of gay men in association with interactions with their children. They found that areas of the brain that are commonly activated in mothers and heterosexual fathers in response to children were also evident in gay fathers suggesting that the neurobiological mechanisms associated with childcare transcend gender or sexual orientation 9. Compared to other mammals and certainly other great apes, humans seem to be biologically predisposed to care for children. Do gay fathers exhibit the same hormonal changes as heterosexual dads? We don’t know yet although Yale anthropology Ph.D. candidate Erin Burke, Dr. Pasquale Patrizio of Yale Medical School and I are hot on the trail of this question 10. There are many ways to be a dad and we’re only beginning to understand that fatherhood is as varied as the colors and patterns on a homemade necktie.

Richard G. Bribiescas is professor of anthropology and ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, where he also serves as deputy provost for faculty development and diversity. He is the author of Men: Evolutionary and Life History. He lives in Hamden, Connecticut.

References and Endnotes

 

1          Fernandez-Duque, E., Valeggia, C. R. & Mendoza, S. P. The biology of paternal care in human and nonhuman primates. Annual Review of Anthropology 38, 115–130, doi:10.1146/annurev-anthro-091908-164334 (2009).

2          Anderson, K. G. How well does paternity confidence match actual paternity? Evidence from worldwide nonpaternity rates. Curr Anthropol 47, 513-520, doi:Doi 10.1086/504167 (2006).

3          Gray, P. B. & Anderson, K. G. Fatherhood : evolution and human paternal behavior. (Harvard University Press, 2010).

4          Gettler, L. T., McDade, T. W., Feranil, A. B. & Kuzawa, C. W. Longitudinal evidence that fatherhood decreases testosterone in human males. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 108, 16194-16199, doi:10.1073/pnas.1105403108 (2011).

5          Muller, M. N., Marlow, F. W., Bugumba, R. & Ellison, P. T. Testosterone and paternal care in East African foragers and pastoralists. Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences 276, 347-354 (2009).

6          Quinlan, R. J. Human parental effort and environmental risk. Proc Biol Sci 274, 121-125, doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3690 (2007).

7          Bribiescas, R. G. Men: Evolutionary and Life History. (Harvard University Press, 2006).

8          Bribiescas, R. G. How Men Age: What Evolution Reveals about Male Health and Mortality. (Princeton University Press, 2016).

9          Abraham, E. et al. Father’s brain is sensitive to childcare experiences. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111, 9792-9797, doi:10.1073/pnas.1402569111 (2014).

10        Burke, E. E. & Bribiescas, R. G. Hormones and behavior in same-sex male parents: implications for the evolution of paternal care in humans. Am J Phys Anthropol 159, 105 (2016).

 

Presenting the new trailer for Silent Sparks

Fireflies are beloved insects, conjurers of summer magic, but have you ever wondered exactly what is behind their flashing?  Check out the stunning trailer for our new book by biologist Sara Lewis, Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Firefly Fact Friday – The Firefly Genome Project

This week we have a special announcement from Sara Lewis:

Fireflies! Their silent summer fireworks fill us with wonder, yet so much about this fascinating creatures has been shrouded in mystery. But now a path-breaking scientific initiative promises to reveal the science behind the spectacle by unveiling the genetic blueprint of Photinus pyralis, the Big Dipper firefly. Last week the Firefly Genome Project was successfully funded through the crowd funding site Experiment. The popularity of Silent Sparks helped to spread the word, and more than 80 people from all over the world helped to fund this collaborative project. Scientists hope that sequencing the firefly genome will help to illuminate how firefly features like flashing and nuptial gifts have evolved, foster important advances in bioscience and medicine, and help guide future conservation efforts.

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies 
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo.

The bright world of fireflies: photographs from Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketCharismatic, admired, and endlessly mysterious, fireflies have long been a source of intrigue. Sara Lewis has spent nearly thirty years examining the lives, surprising habits, and habitats of these beloved and frequently romanticized insects. As Memorial Day weekend winds down and fireflies start to make their debut in summer skies, take a peek inside the new book, Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.

 

 

 

Q&A with Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketThere is something undeniably captivating and alluring about fireflies. In Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, author Sara Lewis talks about the lives and surprising secrets of these creatures that light up the night skies. You’ll learn, for instance, that fireflies’ lives can be rather brief and gruesome. Lewis has spent over thirty years studying fireflies and has participated in a popular TED talk about the insects. This Q&A offers insights into why Lewis became so attracted to the idea of researching fireflies and what readers can expect to be surprised by in Silent Sparks.

What inspired you to write a book about fireflies?

SL: Ah, this book had quite a long gestation period! I’ve been doing research on fireflies for about 30 years. Whenever people hear about my job, “ Oh, I love fireflies!” is their nearly universal response. And so many people are curious, quite eager to learn more. But there really hasn’t been much accessible information out there. Even though we’ve learned a tremendous amount about fireflies over the past few decades, all these new discoveries lay hidden away in the technical literature. Scientists write primarily for other scientists, so these papers are chock full of technical jargon. Also, they can be difficult to access because they’re located behind paywalls. Knowing how many people would enjoy celebrating the science and the wonder of fireflies – that’s really what inspired me.

Who is the audience for this book, and what do you hope people will get from it?

SL: As I write in the preface: “If you love fireflies, then I wrote this book for you.” My goal is to escort people behind the scenes to explore the science behind the spectacle. How do these creatures make light? And what’s with all that flashing – are they talking to one another? What do baby fireflies look like? Are fireflies really disappearing?

One thing I hope people will take away from Silent Sparks is the immense beauty that emerges when you look at fireflies in the light of evolution. And they’ll get to glimpse the scientific process that helps us collectively accumulate knowledge. Of the few hundred scientists who’ve dedicated their days and nights to uncovering fireflies’ secrets, I’m lucky to count many of them among my mentors and friends. The book introduces quite a few of these firefly scientists – for me, their stories help the science come alive.

What’s most the surprising thing your book reveals about fireflies?

SL: Most people think there’s just one type of firefly, so the Most Surprising Revelation Award would likely go to the fact that there are over 2000 different firefly species sprinkled across the globe. And they’ve evolved remarkably different courtship styles. In North America, our most familiar fireflies are lightning bugs, which use quick, bright flashes to find mates. Northern Europe has mainly glow-worm fireflies: plump and wingless, these females climb up onto perches at night and glow for hours to attract their flying males. The western US has mainly dark fireflies. These fly during daytime and they don’t light up – instead males use their fancy antennae to sniff out perfumes given off by their females.

Any other surprises?

SL: Yes, lots! Without revealing too much, I think most people will be surprised by fireflies’ gory and gluttonous childhood, for instance.

Do you have a favorite firefly?

SL: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that! It’s so hard to pick just one, because fireflies have so many different lifestyles and I find each one fascinating. I guess my current favorite would have to be the blue ghost firefly, Phausis reticulata. I fell under the spell of these mysterious fireflies a few years back when I first encountered them in the southern Appalachians. Flying ankle-high above the forest floor, blue ghost males give off eerie, long-lasting glows as they search for females. Meanwhile, the blue ghost females are tiny and wingless, and they’re very hard to find. They’re nestled down in the leaf litter, their transparent bodies studded with glowspots that shine like gemstones.

Another reason I like them is that they hold so many secrets just waiting to be uncovered – we still know very little these blue ghost fireflies.

silent sparks firefly

In blue ghost fireflies, the males can fly but the wingless females cannot. (photo by Raphael De Cock)

What got you started studying fireflies?

SL: I got hooked on life’s diversity early on, but it wasn’t until I completed my PhD that I started paying close attention to fireflies. One evening I was sitting out in my backyard in North Carolina, and suddenly these silent sparks rose up all around me. It was a magical moment – anyone who’s seen them knows exactly what I mean! And when I started reading about them, I realized these creatures would make perfect subjects to better understand sexual selection. This evolutionary process is responsible for the many bizarre and unusual features that help males improve their reproductive prospects: the peacock’s tail, the rhinoceros beetle’s horns, the bowerbird’s displays, the wood thrushes’ song and, as it turns out, the firefly’s flashes.

What did you learn while writing this book?

In terms of my personal growth, I learned to love writing again. For this book project, I really wanted to make the science accessible. Yet scientific writing uses a highly precise, concise shorthand; jargon works really well when scientists are communicating with one another, but this language can be difficult for others to understand. It took a few months, but finally I remembered how much fun it is to write in plain English! Adjectives, punctuation…the possibilities were thrilling!

silent sparks firefly

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

As I researched the book, I also learned a lot about the many interconnections between humans and fireflies. Around the world, fireflies elicit a nearly mystical reverence. But nowhere on Earth are fireflies more intricately woven into the cultural fabric than in Japan. As I describe in Silent Sparks, the Japanese people have enjoyed a profound love affair with fireflies for more than a thousand years. But I hadn’t realized how narrowly these beloved insects escaped being extinguished from the Japanese countryside during the twentieth century. Now, through research and widespread restoration efforts, Japanese fireflies have made a remarkable come-back to become a symbol of national pride and environmentalism.

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Lincoln, Massachusetts.