West Virginians through the generations have marveled at the intermittent flashes of light that take place in the night skies of late spring and summer, as swarms of fireflies emerge from the ground to perform their annual bioluminescence-enhanced mating ritual.
While such displays can be spectacular, particularly if large populations of fireflies are involved, imagine viewing a light show created by thousands of lightning bugs all flashing at the same time, at the same intervals.
Such displays are created by synchronous fireflies, members of two or three of the 2,000 species of fireflies known to exist in North America. Until recently, synchronous fireflies could be found on public lands in the U.S. only in portions of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest, the Oak Ridge Wildlife Management Area in east Tennessee, and South Carolina’s Congaree National Park.
As of this year, Watoga State Park in Pocahontas County has joined that list.
A now-retired Division of Natural Resources biologist happened to be visiting at Watoga during the 2019 firefly mating season and discovered what appeared to be a population of rare synchronous fireflies. She passed along information on the sighting, including the GPS coordinates for where it occurred, to Mack Frantz, State Zoologist for the DNR, who was organizing a study of firefly populations across West Virginia using data from citizen observations.
Not long after learning about the possible West Virginia synchronous firefly population, Frantz said, the Watoga State Park Foundation contacted him about their Dark Sky Initiative, a project aimed at having Watoga designated as the state’s first Dark Sky Park.
To qualify for the designation, a park must meet criteria established by the International Dark Sky Association. They include being able to see the Milky Way with the naked eye, having night sky brightness measured several times annually to meet qualifying standards, and having only a few domes of artificial light visible from the park, provided they are near the horizon.
Park management must also be on board with protecting and promoting the dark sky as a resource for education and scientific study and to enhance habitat for light-avoiding wildlife species — like fireflies.
“It was great timing to have work already underway to make Watoga a Dark Skies Park at the same time that a synchronous firefly population was observed in the park,” Frantz said.
Ensuring that Watoga’s night skies remain as dark or even darker than present by modifying its outdoor lighting is expected to enhance the park’s ability to sustain resident fireflies.
“Fireflies are extremely sensitive to light,” said Ken Springer of the Watoga State Park Foundation, who writes the “Watoga Trails Report,” a nature and history column, for the Pocahontas Times. “They don’t like to be around flashlights, headlights or bright outdoor lighting.”
In mid-June, Springer was part of a small group led by Tiffany Beachy, biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, who set out to confirm the presence of a synchronous firefly population at