Environment

Sensations of Summer Podcast

Fireflies, cicadas and surfing and the citizen science projects that support them

Citizen Science Salon iconCitizen Science SalonBy Bob HirshonJul 2, 2024 9:15 AM
Photinus pyralis firefly
Credit: Terry Priest, via Flickr Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

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Every season has its own unique sights, sounds and other sensations. In this episode of the SciStarter podcast, we look at fireflies, listen to cicadas, feel the ocean waves and extend our senses beyond the bounds of our planet.

Sensations of Summer Audio Podcast

Sensations of Summer Video Podcast

Podcast Transcript

SciStarter S5E6 Sensations of Summer

Bob Hirshon

Welcome to Citizen Science: Stories of Science We Can Do Together, also known as the SciStarter podcast. In this episode a summer sensory extravaganza: the beauty and complexity of flashing fireflies; the sounds of periodical cicadas; the sensation of sun and waves in your skin.

Bob

It's June and the fireflies are just starting to appear, including here in the greater Washington, DC area. This is some poor-quality phone video I shot last night of a couple of photinus fireflies probably photinus pyralis, the Big Dipper fireflies that make the little J shapes in the air. They also produce toxic chemicals called lucibufagins that repell birds and spiders. And you might be thinking, "wait luci-BUFA-gins? "Bufa" means toad. So are these chemicals the same as the bufadienolides that some toads make that cause cardiac arrest?" To which I would say "yes, they're very similar. And I might add, dang, you really know your naturally occurring polycyclic compounds! That's really impressive." Now, another firefly, photuris, can't produce that chemical, so they are tasty, and so are their offspring; they would be eaten by birds and bugs, but female photuris fireflies imitate the photinus flash pattern to attract photinus Male saying he big bug come on over. But when the photinus males approach looking for a good time, the female photuris eats them. I know, that was unexpected, right? And that way they absorb the anti spider chemical, so she won't be eaten. And then she passes it down to her offspring, so they're safe. So this is either a touching story of maternal devotion, or a horrific tale of insecticidal treachery, depending on your perspective, and on whether it's told in a horror film or Disney isn't nature wonderful circle of life kind of thing. Anyway, that's just one of the zillion crazy firefly facts you would learn by joining Firefly Atlas and becoming a contributor and hanging out with firefly researchers like Roshan Vignarajah. Roshan is an esteemed firefly expert currently conducting research into the distribution of several rare species in the mid-Atlantic region of the US. He's also just 14 years old. Hey, Roshan, thanks for joining us.

Roshan Vignarajah

Yeah, thank you for having me.

Bob

So, I'm really interested in in your, in your interest in fireflies. And can you tell me when you first started, you know, sort of becoming interested in them?

Roshan

Well, fireflies, I started becoming interested in them, I'd say about three or four years back. And my first major thing was looking for Photuris bethaniansis, which is a critically endangered species of firefly in Maryland.

Bob

And I think a lot of people just think there's fireflies, they don't realize that there are lots of different kinds. So yeah, talk about that a little bit.

Roshan

I'd say there's about four genera of fireflies that we find it in the east: Photuris, Photinus, Pyractomena and Phausis. Phausis is found in the mountains it has a blue glow, very rare. Pyractomena is found pretty much everywhere with an orange glow. Photinus, which is the one most people, see the Big Dipper fireflies, which the flash goes like that, I'm kind of like a "J." And those guys are pretty much everywhere. And then Photuris is the genus with the most diversity. And they have a green flash most of the time. And they, depending on the species, their habitat differs.

Bob

Wow. And in a regular backyard like a suburban backyard. Is there any diversity there? Or are they all just the Big Dipper ones?

Roshan

Mostly the Big Dipper ones, obviously, but you'll also have Photuris hebes, you'd have Photuris, or Photinus macdermotti. You might have Photinus sabulosus. It all depends. You might have pennsylvanica, Photuris pennsylvanica. Just depends.

Bob

And you know a lot of people are sort of interested in having habitat to preserve, you know, like pollinators or monarch butterflies or things like that. And focus on on you know, those sorts of organisms. Are there things people can do to to encourage fireflies?

Roshan

Absolutely plant native plants um especially grasses native grasses, which are often overlooked, because your fireflies are going to be eating slugs and snails and worms, and they need moist areas and grass needs to be covering up those moist areas, as larva.

Bob

Great. Well that's good. Anything else you want to add?

Roshan

Well, there's really aren't that many people looking for fireflies so I do encourage people to go out looking for them and submit their data to either Firefly Watch, or also the Xerces one... I think it's called Firefly Atlas. And iNaturalist.

Bob

Okay. All right. Great. All right. Well, thanks a lot, Roshan.

Roshan

Thank you.

Bob

Now, while fireflies communicate through light, many other summer creatures rely on sound, few more so than the ear-splittingly loud periodical cicadas. There are seven species, are all in the genus Magicicada. And they're found only in eastern North America. They live as larvae underground for either 13 or 17 years, which are prime numbers. And then they emerge in large regional, really noisy broods. There are 12 broods of the 17-year cicadas and three of the 13-year cicadas. And this year, as you may have heard, there are two broods emerging in adjacent territories: brood nineteen, known as the Great Southern Brood. That's the largest of all, it goes from Missouri and Arkansas and Southern Illinois all the way east to North Carolina, South to Mississippi and Louisiana. And then there's brood 13, which is kind of concentrated just in eastern Iowa, Northern Illinois and Southern Michigan. Now, it's really rare for two broods to emerge in adjacent territories at the same time. In fact, these two co-emerged most recently when Thomas Jefferson was U.S. president, 221 years ago. So if you are going to be anywhere near this swath of country, consider joining Cicada Safari and downloading the Cicada Safari app. It was created by Gene Kritsky at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati. And scientists like Gene not only want to map the emergence of the cicadas, but also want to study the areas where they overlap to see if there's any interbreeding between the broods, which could lead to some interesting genetics and mathematics. And while Cicada Safari is just for periodical cicadas, regular old annual cicadas occur almost everywhere on Earth. And if you want to report on them, just go to iNaturalist and search for "cicada." There are close to 100 projects covering cicadas all over the world. Also, check out Cicada Mania, a webpage with all things cicada-related.

Bob

But now let's leave the world of bugs, sights and sounds for the enveloping sensation of the ocean. Surfers are literally immersed in their elements: the salty ocean, crisp breezes of the seashore. And they have their own way of communing with nature and also with citizen science, it's important to them. At SciStarter there are two large citizen science projects created by surfers but open to anyone who loves coastal environments and wants to protect them. One is Surfrider, an organization created 40 years ago by surfers in Malibu trying to protect a local surfing spot. Over time, they grew into a national organization with chapters in surfing hubs all over the US. In citizen science circles, they might be best known for their Blue Water Task Force, which empowers nonscientists to conduct water quality testing through 50 chapter based labs. The work dovetails with that of local government agencies to quickly detect and remediate contamination of beaches. If you want to get involved, visit SciStarter and search "Surfrider" to find your nearest chapter. Another surfer-led program is Saved the Waves. Surfer and oceanographer Diego Sancho Gallegos is Conservation Program Manager for Save the Waves. It's an international nonprofit dedicated to protecting what he terms "surf ecosystems."

Diego Sancho Gallegos

So a surf ecosystem, obviously, there's the wave, but it's also the plants and animals that surround that wave and the human communities that rely on that wave for their livelihoods, well-being and cultural significance. So it's kind of like an interdisciplinary approach that we're taking to conservation using surfing as the vehicle for conservation.

Bob

The key to the program is public involvement: not just surfers, but anyone who cares about coastal environments.

Diego

The main way that people can engage like, the easiest way to engage with Save the Waves is through the Save the Waves app. So it's available for Android and iOS. It's in four languages, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. And it works anywhere in the world. So it's a tool that allows individuals to make reports around coastal threats that they find in their, you know, beaches, coastlines, communities. So the idea is that we connect all the threats or as many of the threads as we can, with our local partners on the ground that are actively working to solve these issues. So it's a it's a tool for, you know, people like you and me to get involved and help support these different projects and programs to do coastal conservation in their local community. The app gives you six different types of threat to choose from plus a seven general category that you can just fill in. So you take a photo of the issue, you write a short description and submit it, and the app automatically geotags the report, then that goes into our database, which is also publicly available for anyone who would like to look at it, you can see the map on our website, Save the Waves dot org slash app, or you can also, you know, do a data request through or also through our website, and then you know, process the data, map it out. Whatever you know, if people have like interest in exploring the data more in depth.

Bob

He says they're currently creating a fellowship program to support people in locations where threats have been identified so that they can follow up. The support might include training on advocacy, fundraising, or science-based remediation– whatever can help them work locally to address the situation. Check out Save the Waves at SciStarter to learn more.

Bob

Finally, modern technology has allowed us to extend our senses beyond what we see, hear and feel in our immediate surroundings. The Catalina Sky Survey Telescope lets us sense Earth's greater surroundings, keeping an eye out for near earth asteroids. Some of these asteroids stray perilously close to Earth threatening fireflies, cicadas, surfers, and everything else. And as we all know, the best way to avoid a catastrophic asteroid collision is to know when one is coming as soon as possible, so we can try to deflect it. That's why University of Arizona planetary scientist Carson Fuls and his colleagues created Daily Minor Planet, a project that relies on 1000s of sharp-eyed volunteers just like you to check over daily sky reports looking for any unexpected visitors.

Carson Fuls

We upload new images every day. And what we're asking people to do is exactly what we do. When we're up at our telescopes, we take four images for the same spot in the sky, and we look for tiny objects that might be moving. Background stars, background galaxies are all stationary. But the asteroids move around just a little bit. And we need your help to identify those in our images.

Bob

It's a small team, and they have a lot of sky to cover each night.

Carson Fuls

And we only have so much time during the night to review our images before we have to move to the next one. But we generate so many candidate detections that we need help going through the rest of them. Otherwise, the potential asteroids that is in that, that are in that data would just never be measured, and they might be missed.

Bob

And while most of those objects don't pose any threat to Earth, it's still important to keep a watchful eye.

Carson Fuls

The dinosaurs didn't have a Near Earth Object survey program, and it didn't end well for them. Now, there's currently no giant asteroids that are threatening the earth. But we still want to find even smaller ones that might impact the Earth many years in the future. We want to find them in time to do something about it, which we currently have the ability to do. Asteroid impacts are probably the only natural disaster that we might have any say in preventing.

Bob

Again, the project is called the Daily Minor Planet. It's on the Zooniverse platform, but you should still sign up through SciStarter to keep all your citizen science activities right on your SciStarter dashboard. Well, that wraps it up for this episode. I'm Bob Hirshon. Thanks.

Bob

This podcast is brought to you each month by SciStarter, which is jam-packed with citizen science projects events and tools. It's all at SciStarter.org. That's SCISTARTER dot org. If you've listened this far, you are our kind of people! So thanks for at least considering being a citizen scientist and getting involved in making a difference. And if you have any ideas you want to share with us any things you want to hear on this podcast, get in touch with us, please, at Info@SciStarter.org. We would love to hear from you. Thanks again, and I'll see you next time.

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