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Fireflies: Pyractomena


Artwork by Calli Oldfield
Artwork by Callie Oldfield

Evolution of Communication Signals: 

Some of the big questions in animal communication include: Which signals are used and why? How are these signals produced and detected? And how is signal evolution shaped by senders, intended and unintended receivers, and the physical environment?

We are using fireflies (Lampyridae, Coleoptera) as a model system to address these questions. We generate molecular phylogenies of our study species to study the evolution of adult mating signals (light signals and pheromones). We also study how environmental conditions (habitat characteristics, other signaling species and predators) are affecting light signals, how signal sensors (eyes and antennae) evolve, the evolution of aposematic signals, and the biogeography of fireflies in North and South America.

Phylogenetics & Signal Evolution in fireflies (Lampyridae, Coleoptera)

We are using molecular data to elucidate the phylogenetic relationships of fireflies. The firefly system is exceptionally well suited as a study system, because it allows us to connect signal phenotypes with the underlying genes and their molecular evolution. Our lab has extensive experience in firefly behavior, light emission measurements, sensor morphology, molecular methods and phylogenetics.

1. Species-level phylogenies of fireflies and signal evolution. In collaboration with Dave Hall (University of Georgia) we utilized firefly genomes and transcriptomes to generate a probeset (500 probes) for Anchored Hybrid Enrichment (AHE) as a basis for the worldwide firefly phylogeny. We are also using these data to generate robust species-level phylogenies to study signal evolution (pheromones, flashes, glows) and associated sensor morphology in this group.

2. Worldwide phylogeny of fireflies and evolution of signal mode. In collaboration with the labs of Seth Bybee (Brigham Young University) and Marc Branham (University of Florida) we are utilizing our AHE probe set to generate a world-wide genus-level firefly phylogeny, to date the origin of larval and adult firefly bioluminescence, and to study signal evolution (light signals, pheromones) and associated sensor morphology across this beetle family. 

3. Deploying integrative systematics to untangle Lucidota, the Gordian knot of Neotropical firefly taxonomy. In collaboration with the labs of Luiz Silveira (Western Carolina University) and Joe McHugh (University of Georgia), we are using our AHE probe set to place all South American firefly genera on an extended worldwide lampyrid phylogeny, clarify the definitions of some notoriously difficult genera, and use morphological analyses to produce taxonomic revisions of select problematic clades.

4. Signal production and reception. We are sequencing genes involved in light production (luciferase) and reception (opsins and screening pigment enzymes) to examine how selection acts on signal production and reception in fireflies. In addition, we are doing fieldwork (ambient light measurements in different habitats and measurements of firefly light spectra) and gene expression studies to investigate light color evolution in fireflies.

5. Biogeography of fireflies. Originating with a collaboration with Jim Lloyd we are investigating the biogeography of North American fireflies. The species-distributions of the ~150 North American (NA) firefly species differ widely in location and area. Our research aims to identify physical (elevation, precipitation and temperature, vegetation cover, etc.) and biological (congeners, other firefly genera, firefly predators, etc.) variables that explain the biogeography of NA fireflies.

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