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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

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987