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No. 44: Mar-Apr 1986

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Signals In The Night

Consider the figure below and the four sets of signals (plain blips) and responses (blips with circles over them). Are these from the radar screen of a fighter closing in on an enemy aircraft? Or perhaps the electrical signals generated by the fish mentioned in SF#43? Of course the answer is: None of the above. We have a different story to tell. These blips, representing queries and responses, are not generated by human-built radars or by electrical fish, but rather by animals much 'lower' on the evolutionary ladder -- fireflies. This illustration is Fig. 3 in a lengthy review article and carries the following unilluminating caption: "Examples of Entrainment of femme C's (see Table 3) Responses to Multiple Counterfeit Flashes." It seems that we have some sort of electronic warfare between the femme (predatory female fireflies that lure other fireflies with false signals) and the preyed-upon species. The many pages describe all sorts of feints, verification signals, and other stratagems.

(Carlson, Albert D., and Copeland, Jonathan; "Communication in Insects," Quarterly Review of Biology, 60:415, 1985.)

Comment. It is impossible to do justice to this paper in this short review, but two things should be mentioned: (1) Fireflies may be considered "low" on the evolutionary ladder, but their tiny brains certainly process a lot of data in complex ways; and (2) In southeast Asia, massed fireflies flash in synchronism along some riverbanks, creating one of the great spectacles of nature. See our Handbook Incredible Life for details. For a description of this book, visit: here.

Blips representing queries and responses from fireflies

From Science Frontiers #44, MAR-APR 1986. 1986-2000 William R. Corliss