Nature's greatest light show is coming soon, but there's a catch: You'll have to travel to Tennessee to experience the magic. Here's what you can expect to see.

By Dan Nosowitz
May 10, 2019

If you’re from the eastern half of North America, you’re probably familiar with fireflies as a fundamental, cheerful part of summer. (Sorry to the western half, but you guys have nice mountains and an incredibly scenic train ride.) But every year, something happens in Tennessee that’s truly amazing.

There’s a species of firefly—Photinus carolinus, to be precise—that’s known as a synchronous firefly. Instead of the random flashing of other species of firefly, this particular species, for a limited period of time, all flashes together, creating incredible light shows. All of the male fireflies follow the same pattern: flash about six times, followed by a break, followed by more flashing. They’re synchronized, meaning that the flashing takes the form of an almost scripted light show.

Image courtesy of Getty.

This type of firefly lives throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains, but the biggest light show every year happens in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for about two weeks. This year, you'll be able to see them from May 30 through June 6. In recent years, the experience has become a major tourist attraction, to the point where the National Parks Service had to create a lottery ticket system, along with a trolley, to take people safely to where the fireflies are. In 2011, more than a thousand people showed up each night, according to the New York Times,

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No one is exactly sure why synchronous fireflies show this behavior when other fireflies do not. The flashing is part of a mating ritual, but exactly why is a mystery: maybe it’s to create enough light to attract females from far away, or perhaps it’s to allow females to communicate in the breaks between flashes.

But even if you can’t make it to the National Park, firefly season is just beginning throughout the eastern United States. You might even be able to get your own light show just by going into your backyard.

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