For many Americans, it wouldn't feel like summer without the ethereal glint of fireflies at twilight. The bioluminescent beetles are warm-weather icons in many Eastern states, but they're rarely seen west of the Rocky Mountains.
Despite a common misconception, however, a few fireflies do live in the U.S. West. They may be less abundant and less conspicuous, but they're out there — even in the arid, urban and light-polluted landscapes of Southern California.
In fact, a new species of firefly was just discovered in Los Angeles County, hiding in the shadow of America's second-largest city. The firefly was found in May by Joshua Oliva, an undergraduate student at the University of California-Riverside who was collecting insects in the Santa Monica Mountains for an entomology class.
"He wasn't 100 percent certain it was a firefly, and brought it to me for confirmation," says Doug Yanega, senior scientist at the UC-Riverside Entomology Research Museum, in a press release about the discovery. "I know the local fauna well enough that within minutes I was able to tell him he had found something entirely new to science. I don't think I've seen a happier student in my life."
Lightning in a bottle
Southern California is home to several varieties of fireflies, also known as lightning bugs, but not all of them glow. Even the glowing ones keep a lower profile than their Eastern relatives, flying for only brief periods after dusk. They also tend to live in small, highly localized clusters near springs and seeps, where they feed on snails. This limited range can make them especially vulnerable, Yanega points out.
"One reason we are bringing this discovery to the public's attention is that it seems likely that this beetle may be highly restricted in distribution," he says, "and the habitat where it occurs may require consideration for some level of protection, at least until we can learn more about it."
Experts have confirmed this firefly is a new species, but little else is known about it. (Photo: Joshua Oliva/UC-Riverside)
The newfound firefly (pictured above) is about half a centimeter long, according to UC-Riverside, with a mostly black body and an orange "halo-like" pattern on the shield over its head. It has a small bioluminescent organ at the tip of its tail.
Oliva, who moved to the U.S. from Guatemala when he was 9 years old, says he has been fascinated by insects since childhood. He found the firefly over Mother's Day weekend, and his own mother was there to witness the discovery firsthand.
"My mom has been asking me about what I am doing in school," he tells the San Bernardino Sun, "so I thought I'd take her out catching insects with me."
Baptism by firefly
Not only is it rare for an undergrad to discover a new species, Yanega says, but it usually takes much longer than a month for scientists to recognize a previously unknown insect. "It's pretty typical for specimens of new insect species to sit in a collection for a decade or more before an expert comes along who has enough familiarity with that particular type of insect to be able to recognize that it's something new," he says. "I was able to tell this one was interesting right away, and compared it to reference material in our museum."
Firefly experts in Florida have confirmed this species is unknown, although it probably won't be named anytime soon. Formally naming a new species is like "gathering evidence for a court case," Yanega says, requiring a detailed list of distinguishing characteristics and possibly even DNA sequencing.
While it's too early to know if the firefly might be named for Oliva, "it's not unusual for new species' names to honor the person who first collected them," Yanega adds.
Oliva graduated from UC-Riverside earlier this month, but he doesn't plan to go far. His next goal is to apply for the university's graduate program in entomology, and as he tells the Sun, he may already have a leg — or six — up on the competition. "Discovering a new insect sure looks good on the application," he says.
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