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Conversations with Fireflies

A Case Study of Mimicry and Defense


Lisa Carloye
Biology Department
Elon University


This case explores the aggressive mimicry behavior of the femme fatale firefly - female fireflies in the genus Photuris that mimic the flash pattern of females in the genus Photinus in order to lure Photinus males to their death. The case consists of a series of fictionalized field book entries that are based on an article by J.E. Lloyd that originally appeared in Science in 1965, as well as a series of handouts that the instructor presents to the students for analysis and discussion in class in a progressive disclosure format.

  • To illustrate aggressive mimicry.
  • To expose students to the scientific process.
  • To give students practice interpreting results.
  • To introduce students to a classic entomological story.
Keywords: Aggressive mimicry; firefly flashing; femme fatale firefly; Lampyridae; Photuris; Photinus; lucibufagin; insect; animal behavior; entomology; predator; predation; experimental design
Topical Area: Scientific method
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Interrupted, Journal Article
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Ecology   Zoology  
Date Posted: 03/26/04
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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Supplemental Materials

Instructors may wish to make use of the optional supplemental material below.

  So Flashy: The Chemistry Behind a Firefly's Glow “Science
Floating blinks of yellow, green, and orange light are typically sure signs of bioluminescent beetles, or as you likely know them, fireflies. Researchers recently nailed down the exact chemical reaction that gives fireflies their glow--information that had eluded them for decades. In this Science Friday podcast, Sarah Sander, a postdoctoral associate who studies the evolution of light color in these often luminous insects, explains how this new finding affects her work. She also elaborates on why fireflies benefit from flashing in the first place, be it to attract mates or prey. Created by Science Friday. Running time: 8:18 min. Date: July 31, 2015.


The following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.

  In a Flash: Firefly Communication “Science
Fireflies communicate with a "language of light" that scientists still don’t completely understand. In this video, James Lloyd and Marc Branham of the University of Florida, Gainesville, discuss unique flash patterns and times for some of the 2,000 types of fireflies that light up the summer nights. Created by Science Friday. Produced by Emily V. Driscoll. Running Time: 4:32 min. Date: July 3, 2014.

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