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Lottery winners get to see the magical mating display of a special firefly species

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Every summer at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, thousands of people enter a lottery in hopes of seeing the mating display of one firefly species. Last month, Jacqui Sieber of member station WUOT got the chance to witness this rare display of nature.

JACQUI SIEBER, BYLINE: I'm at a campground in Elkmont, Tenn., a secluded area where lights from nearby towns can't reach. About a hundred people of all ages are quietly mingling. It's 8 o'clock in the evening. These people are lucky because they won the lottery to see a natural wonder.

BOONE VANDZURA: Folks describe it as being a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

SIEBER: That's Chief Ranger Boone Vandzura getting our group ready for this adventure. We will be watching a synchronous fireflies mating display. The species, known by its technical name Photinus Carolinus, is one of the few firefly species in North America that synchronizes its flash patterns. Ryan Hipps and his friend were among the lucky people selected from a group of 42,000 applicants. They were trying for three years.

RYAN HIPPS: Worked out - as they say, third time's a charm.

SIEBER: What he's waiting for tonight is the fireflies' flash patterns resembling dancing Christmas lights, illuminating the forest floor in a pale blue color for a few seconds, then pausing all at once, only then to pick it back up moments later.

VANDZURA: You know where you're headed?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Not really.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No.

VANDZURA: OK. Any area in this area is good.

SIEBER: After instructions, the group spreads out into the nearby woods. Everyone is equipped with red flashlights so they won't disrupt the display.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What time do they quit lighting?

VANDZURA: Like I said, we were here till midnight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh, goodness.

SIEBER: Biologists say the species mates for a few weeks every summer when the temperature is just right. It's 9:00. Aside from the red flashlights, it is pitch-black. Then all of a sudden, the forest floor spontaneously lights up like clockwork.

Oh, my gosh. Oh, my gosh.

The males are the flashy ones. Their blue lights flicker to attract the females walking on the ground. Then the females as a group answer all at once with a double white flash. While the synchronous fireflies finished their short mating season, other species across the country are still active. And if you see or feel one, count yourself lucky.

I just felt one hit my face. I got blessed by a firefly.

For NPR News, I'm Jacqui Sieber in Elkmont, Tenn.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAN OMARI SONG, "MOVE TOO FAST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jacqui Sieber