To See and Be Seen

To See and Be Seen

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Ainissa Ramirez is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy this excerpt from Ramirez’s book The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another (The MIT Press, 2020).

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Fireflies, which are also called lightning bugs, are neither fly nor bug. They are beetles that, besides being a tasty meal for some birds and spiders, serve no indispensable function for all of nature, like the pollination of plants provided by bees or the aeration of the soil by ants. While their role may be limited, fireflies, with numbers of species in the thousands, have cornered the market on wonder. As nature’s magic lanterns, they are enchanting not just for their light, which was miraculous before Edison, but, in our modern age, for their ability to pull us away from our distractions.

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Fireflies speak with a Morse code of flashes—like summer campers communicating after curfew. They glow by a chemical reaction called bioluminescence. The chemical cocktail of oxygen, a molecular energy packet called ATP, a light-providing luciferin compound, and the luciferase enzyme create a molecular flashlight. Those firefly messages, however, are not innocuous; they are dispatches of love. Hovering knee-high above the grass, the male firefly announces himself, flashing a message, identifying his gender and specific species. While no human is fluent in the firefly language, the best guess is that a firefly may be saying something like, “I am a male and I am a photonis greeni,” explained Sara Lewis, a professor of biology at Tufts University and the author of Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.

Meanwhile, the female firefly, perched below on a blade of grass or shrub leaf, looks up at the male’s sparks. If she likes what she sees, she’ll coyly respond with flashes loosely translated as, “I like you,” as Lewis explained. Once the male gets the “green light” that she is interested, the flying male firefly halts in midair, drops like Wile E. Coyote to her vicinity, and makes the hour-long trek to her blade of grass. When they meet, that’s when the fireworks really begin.

This critter courtship relies on the ability to see each other. When artificial lights glow high above, they shine so brightly that the female firefly cannot see the male flashing. A male will blink at her, but, because of the glare, she won’t know to flash back and these potential lovers may never meet. Additionally, the lights stiffen the competition. Females prefer male fireflies with very bright lanterns, which show a male firefly to be virile, with good health and good genes. The outside lights in the background, however, make the male’s beacon look dimmer than it actually is, rendering the female uninterested. So, she doesn’t blink back.

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The bright bulbs of the human world are masking the essential mating signals of the fireflies and causing a failure to communicate. Male fireflies can possibly flash brighter to find and attract a mate, but they use up their precious energy to do so. Fireflies in their adult stage have a life of no more than fourteen days. For some species, they spend two years underground as larvae, eating and growing, eating and growing, and storing up energy. The energy they save allows them to glow, where one molecule of ATP produces one photon of light. Adult fireflies live off their energy reserve. They rarely eat, since they have a very short time to see and be seen and find love.

Fireflies are not the only creatures that wish we would turn down the lights. Birds, insects, and sea turtles are among the many, many animals that wish we would, too. What most do not know is that “nearly two-thirds of insects are nocturnal,” said Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night. All their activities change with artificial lights. For some insects, like moths, being drawn to a flame is not poetic, but a punishment. Moths circle a light source and die of exhaustion from it. Blinking lights on communication towers enchant birds, for reasons still unknown, causing birds to fly around them and suffer the same demise as moths. “About 6.8 million birds a year in the US and Canada die this way,” said ecologist and USC professor Travis Longcore. For insects, that number is in the billions. This loss has implications for the entire ecosystem. Insects feed other species higher up in the food chain. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link and our electric lights are undermining that chain for all animals.

Artificial lights can cause sea turtle hatchlings to make a devastating choice. As they emerge from their shells on a beach’s shore in the evening, they have a few moments to figure out the direction of the water, which offers shelter from predators and protection from dehydration. Instinctively, they know to head toward where there is the most light. For generations that direction was the water with the moonlight shimmering on its surface. Today, however, the direction that is the brightest is often away from the sea and toward the glow of the city.

Despite this dismal prognosis, fireflies and other wildlife can easily be saved. According to some vocal astronomers and the International Dark Sky Association, all it takes is being mindful about the lights by applying a cover around fixtures so that the light goes downward, by illuminating specific areas at levels that are actually needed, and by using lights on demand with smarter bulbs. …

We as a species are deeply afraid of the dark, which has fueled our addiction to bigger, brighter, and bolder lights. But as a result, we are harming the animal kingdom, and we are also harming ourselves.

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The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another
by Ainissa Ramirez

The MIT Press, 2020
Where to buy: RJ Julia | Bookshop | Barnes & Noble

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