Results of IUCN Red List assessments highlight the need for additional research, population monitoring, and species-specific conservation action.
Candace Fallon, Senior Conservation Biologist, The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
(503) 232-6639, ext. 118 | [email protected]
Anna Walker, Species Survival Officer for Invertebrates, New Mexico BioPark Society
(719) 209-8780 | [email protected]
PORTLAND, Ore.; Thursday, March 25, 2021---Fireflies are charismatic beetles best known for their magical nighttime light displays. With a global distribution of over 2,200 species, they have long captured the hearts and minds of people around the world. Culturally, ecologically, and economically important, fireflies have gained more attention in recent years as anecdotal reports of population declines, increasingly supported by expert opinion and monitoring studies, have grown.
In North America, monitoring studies are relatively sparse, and the conservation status of most species was unknown. To better understand the extinction risk of fireflies in the U.S. and Canada (home to at least 167 species, including two subspecies), researchers from the Xerces Society, the ABQ BioPark, and the IUCN Firefly Specialist Group evaluated the extinction risk of 128 firefly species (77 percent of the described firefly fauna in these two countries) using the criteria of the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM. The IUCN is the global authority on species conservation statuses, with the Red List acting as an international inventory of species and their extinction risks.
The researchers found that 14 species (11 percent of those assessed) are threatened with extinction. Two percent were categorized as Near Threatened, 33 percent were categorized as Least Concern, and over half of the species are Data Deficient—which means too little is known to assess whether they are secure or at risk.
Of the 14 species, the most threatened is the Bethany Beach firefly, which was categorized as Critically Endangered. This species was petitioned for emergency Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Xerces Society in 2019. It received a positive 90-day finding and will undergo a full status assessment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Another seven were categorized as Endangered, six as Vulnerable, and two are considered Near Threatened. Many of these species have narrow geographic ranges, specific habitat requirements, and life history traits such as flightless females or bioluminescent courtship behaviors that make them more vulnerable to extinction. Although the threats for each species vary, the main drivers of decline appear to be habitat loss and degradation, light pollution, and drought and sea level rise associated with climate change.
“These assessments—the first for fireflies—lay the groundwork for firefly conservation in the U.S. and Canada,” said Candace Fallon, a senior conservation biologist at the Xerces Society and Red List co-assessor. “With this information, we can now be more strategic about setting conservation priorities and addressing data gaps, working to protect the full diversity of fireflies and their habitats, from the common and widespread big dipper firefly to the threatened and little-known southwest spring firefly.”
These assessments highlight the need for species-specific conservation actions coupled with monitoring efforts to document long-term population trends for threatened species. Additional research is also needed to properly assess the large number of species currently categorized as Data Deficient. Yet while the number of data deficient and threatened species is concerning, it is nonetheless encouraging that many of the species assessed are still thriving. Also encouraging is the fact that the conservation actions needed to maintain populations and protect at-risk species are not limited to government entities or conservation organizations.
“The good news is that everyone can play a role in bolstering firefly populations,” said Anna Walker, New Mexico BioPark Society species survival officer at the ABQ BioPark and Red List co-assessor. “We can turn off lights at night to reduce our individual contributions to light pollution, we can participate in community science projects like Firefly Watch that gather data on firefly distribution and abundance, and we can support organizations that protect and restore the habitats that fireflies need.”
“Completing these North American assessments is a big first step,” said Dr. Sara Lewis, co-chair of the IUCN Firefly Specialist Group and Red List reviewer. “By identifying these threatened fireflies and understanding what they need to thrive, we’re working to ensure these wondrous insects will be lighting up night skies for future generations to enjoy.” The IUCN Firefly Group has begun evaluating species in other parts of the world, and is continuing its global conservation efforts.
There is a fascinating story behind every firefly species—an unusual lifestyle, a charming pattern of courtship flashes, a special type of habitat that is rapidly disappearing. Here are just a few.
Mysterious lantern firefly (Photuris mysticalampas)—Endangered
Mysterious lantern fireflies in an Atlantic white cedar forest in Delaware. (Photo by Radim Schreiber, fireflyexperience.org. Used with permission.)
The mysterious lantern firefly, assessed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, was first described by Delaware State University Professor Dr. Christopher Heckscher in 2013. It is a rare habitat specialist that is endemic to forested floodplains in Delaware. This firefly is known from only a few sites on the Delmarva Peninsula. Adults are active in June and July, emerging from sphagnum hummocks at dusk and flashing in full darkness. Their common name—mysterious lantern—is a nod to their rather otherworldly appearance as they slowly flash on and off in the darkened understory. This species is primarily threatened by sea level rise, which has the potential to inundate its freshwater wetland habitat. Protecting forested areas along floodplains where this species occurs will be important for conserving the remaining populations.
Florida intertidal firefly (Micronaspis floridana)—Endangered
Adult (left) and juvenile (right) Florida intertidal fireflies. (Photos by Drew Fulton [left]) and Ted C. MacRae [right]. Used with permission.)
The Florida intertidal firefly, assessed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, is a small semitropical species restricted to the intertidal zone of salt marshes, mudflats, and mangroves in coastal Florida and the Bahamas. Flashing adults can be active year-round, but are most common from March through May. Habitat loss and climate change are the leading threats to this species. Firefly researcher Lynn Faust has noted that in Florida, where some of the historic sites have been lost, this is linked to coastal development, rising sea levels, light pollution, agricultural activities, and pesticide use. Continued monitoring and adaptive site management will probably be important for this species’ persistence. Increased survey efforts are also needed to determine if historic sites remain extant and if remnant undocumented sites exist, and if so, in what condition. Trained community scientists could help conduct surveys to monitor population trends and document additional sites for this species.
Canyon Imp (Photinus stellaris)—Least Concern
Adult female (left) and male (right) from Texas. (Photos by Mike Quinn, TexasEnto.net. Used with permission.)
The canyon imp, assessed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, occurs along limestone rivers in central and west Texas. Males are known to congregate in large numbers in sycamore trees along these rivers, sometimes flashing in near synchrony. Ben Pfeiffer, firefly researcher and founder of the educational site Firefly.org, describes the males’ spectacular flashes as tiny bolts of lightning as they fly swiftly and erratically over the tops of bushes or through the groves of native trees. This species requires high quality, pristine waterways, so although it is considered Least Concern, it is vulnerable to threats that degrade its habitat, such as groundwater pumping, land conversion to residential and commercial development, light pollution, and increased visitation by tourists. Because females are flightless, they are susceptible to threats such as trampling. As such, habitat protection and population monitoring are recommended to ensure that this species remains stable.
For more information about these Red List assessments, read our blog post.
To learn more about the life history and conservation status of fireflies in the US and Canada, visit the Xerces Society’s website, www.xerces.org/fireflies.
For in-depth conservation guidance, download Conserving the Jewels of the Night at https://xerces.org/publications/guidelines/conserving-jewels-of-night.
About the Xerces Society
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation protects the natural world by conserving invertebrates and their habitat. Established in 1971, the Society is a trusted source for science-based information and advice and plays a leading role in protecting pollinators and many other invertebrates. Our team draws together experts from the fields of habitat restoration, entomology, plant ecology, education, pesticides, farming and conservation biology with a single passion: Protecting the life that sustains us. To learn more, visit xerces.org or follow us @xercessociety on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
About the ABQ BioPark
Located along the Rio Grande River near downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, ABQ BioPark consists of: The ABQ BioPark Zoo, Botanic Garden, Aquarium and Tingley Beach. Welcoming more than 1.3 million visitors per year, we are the top tourist destination in the state of New Mexico and a critical resource for education and conservation in the Southwest US. Through captive breeding programs, large-scale freshwater fish rearing and reintroduction, habitat restoration initiatives, and seed banking, ABQ BioPark is committed to building sustainable conservation initiatives that benefit New Mexico and the world. ABQ BioPark supports conservation measures within the Assess, Plan, Act model by contributing directly to research, providing technical and logistical support for the IUCN SSC, and engaging in direct conservation action. The New Mexico BioPark Society (NMBPS), the nonprofit support organization for the ABQ BioPark, funds the Red List partnership in its entirety and employs three species survival officers at the BioPark. To learn more about the ABQ BioPark, visit their website, or follow them on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. For more information on NMBPS, visit www.bioparksociety.org.
About the IUCN SSC Firefly Specialist Group
The IUCN SSC Firefly Specialist Group works to identify key threats and conservation issues facing fireflies in different geographic regions, and advocates for the most threatened species at national and global levels.