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Seeing the Light

Seeing the LightDoctoral candidate Adam South (G'11) works with Boston Museum of Science and Tufts grads to determine the fate of the firefly population.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [09.22.09] Adam South has always been fascinated by fireflies. Growing up in Indiana, he counted hundreds floating through the sky on any given night.

Now, years later, South has made it his mission to ensure that generations to come will share the same experience, and he has invited people from across the country to lend a hand.

South, an evolutionary ecology Ph.D. student in biology professor Sara Lewis' lab, is the brains behind the Boston Museum of Science's "Firefly Watch," a program put in place to track the fate of the insects' existence as its populations appears to dwindle.

"We don't really know enough about fireflies to know what would be wiping out populations of fireflies, so we're just trying to cast a very broad net and then hoping that based off the data we collect, we can find our focus," he says.

Adam South at his field site in Lincoln, Mass.

Started in the summer of 2008, the Firefly Watch will span three years, collecting information from different volunteer-tracked habitats across the country. South says in the first year they registered over a thousand habitats in 38 states, with others in India, Panama and Canada.

"People go onto the Web site and register one or many habitats," he says. "We ask a series of questions about the location: Is it a backyard? Is it grassy? How often is it mowed? Do you or your neighbors use pesticides? Then we ask people to go out for short periods of time and count the number of fireflies."

He adds, "Some people go out every night and count, some once a week and some once a month. Any information we can get about where fireflies are is key."

South says his connection with the Museum of Science began when a friend of his set him up with a meeting with the museum's science educator, Don Salvatore.

"I mentioned to him that I'd just been to this firefly meeting and there are people there that are trying to do work on firefly populations in Europe. They thought that they were really hampered because they didn't have any online setup," South says. "Don went to his web team and they were really excited about it, and he thought we could make it happen."

As things started coming together, South turned to two Tufts alums and former Ph.D. students of Lewis' for help: Christopher Cratsley, now an associate professor at Fitchburg State College, and Kristian Demary, who is currently working with Cratsley on a grant proposal regarding the relationship between ecological light pollution and firefly decline.



 "I personally am interested in the potential effects of light pollution on fireflies because they use bioluminescent courtship signals," Demary says. "The thought is that perhaps artificial night lights like street and home lights could potentially act as signal noise and the fireflies perhaps won't be able to see one another, and miss the courtship signals."

Working with fellow graduates of Lewis' lab has been an extremely positive experience according to South.

"I don't know how many other Tufts grads have a chance to work with recently graduated Tufts students, which is a shame because it's been awesome for me," he says. "I have these people that already have their Ph.D.s and are engaged in active research outside of Tufts. I have people I can ask questions and see what they've done, and they can give me advice, so it's been wonderful."

While the main goal of the project is to collect data on what may be causing fireflies to disappear, South says he has an ulterior motive as well.

"What I think is really awesome about the project is that it's designed to get people thinking about science," he says. "I think there's a real problem in the U.S. with people not liking science and I think the main reason why is that scientists like myself don't do a good job of getting out there and talking about what science really is."

He adds, "If at the end of our time on this project we can't figure out any patterns but we've got some people interested in science, I think we'd still say that's awesome."

Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications.
Photos by Alonso Nichols, University Photography.


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