Like Christmas lights gently floating in midair, fireflies always add a little bit of magic to the forests they live in.

to create some
firefly chaos →
But some firefly species add even more magic.
In Southeast Asia, if you go out to the riverbank deep in the night, you'll be treated to this stunning lightshow – courtesy of the Thailand firefly:

A whole mangrove forest, lighting up all at once, plunging into darkness, then lighting up all again – in near-perfect synchrony. How do thousands of fireflies coordinate with each other? Who is the conductor of this silent symphony?

This was a mystery for nearly a century, and in 1992, a team of US scientists set out to solve it. Sadly, but not surprisingly, the press mocked them – “Govt. Blows Your Tax $$ to Study Fireflies in Borneo: Not a Bright Idea!” read one tabloid. Undeterred, the scientists pressed on, cameras and calculators in hand.

So, how do thousands of fireflies pick a leader to follow, a maestro to keep their flashing in time? The answer, the scientists found, is simple:

They don't.

Each firefly has its own individual internal clock, and every time the clock “strikes twelve”, it flashes.

And instead of synchronizing their clocks to a central leader, each firefly does the following:

Step 1: when you see a nearby firefly flash, nudge your clock a little bit forward.

Step 2: that's it.

Can such a small, short-ranged interaction really cause an entire forest-ful of fireflies to flash in synchronous harmony? Only one way to find out...

Nudge thy neighbor:
(click to turn on→)ONOFF
Wait. Watch carefully.

What do you see?

At first, not much. The fireflies still seem to be flashing without pattern.

But after a while, you may notice small “patches” of fireflies firing together – but these individual “patches” are still out of sync.

After a bit longer, you start seeing fireflies performing a “wave”, like excited fans in the stands during a baseball game.

Finally, all but a few fireflies are flashing together – and eventually, even these laggards join in the collective dance.

What's more amazing? If you disrupt these fireflies by causing some chaos...

to mess up these
fireflies, again →
...yes, it may cause them to divide for a moment, but slowly and surely, they shall collect themselves again, and flash as one.

Here's a few more buttons & sliders you can use, to play around with these virtual fireflies:

Number of fireflies:
Show clocks:ONOFF
Fireflies' clock speed:
Nudge thy neighbor:ONOFF
How much to nudge clock forward:
a bita lot
How close neighbor must be:
reset fireflies
reset everything
art  design  games  interactive  nature  science  biology  animals  research 
june 2017
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