Fireflies – Notes from Borneo
A quick note from November 8th, from the northernmost tip of the island of Borneo. More complete stories will be forthcoming.
Today I sit on a hill surrounded by the lush tropical vegetation of Sabah, northern Borneo, about 2km from the northernmost tip of the island. Around me I see coconut palms, cordalines, vines, and every manner of tropical trees and shrubbery. Hibiscus and rhododendrons dot my vision, and the sound of the sea is constant. Bird calls punctuate the background ambiance. This place is truly idyllic.
The villa we are staying in is called Hibiscus Villa, a private villa which sits 25 km from the nearest established city called Kudat. We are yet to visit the city, but it promises to be a bustling town of fishermen and traders, consisting mostly of the local tribesmen and women of the Rungus people. They have lived here for centuries, and support themselves by harvesting the sea and making honey from bees. In our villa however there is little sign of the people of the Rungus, as we are quietly tucked away on this hill, out of the view of the locals.
Last night we were lucky enough to see a sight I have never spied before: fireflies. These creatures are incredible. They flit around like stars on the ground, in the air, in the trees and shrubs, and in the sky above, flashing like LEDs and dancing about like fairies. They use their flashes as ways to communicate to one another, a codified series of dots and dashes in light, hoping to find and secure a mate. When I saw my first firefly, I was sure my eyes were playing tricks on me, then I saw another, and another, until I noticed they were all about the place, dancing and flashing away in the tropical evening.
You have to wonder how such an amazing spectacle as the firefly evolved, and for what reason. To create a phosphorescence in their own body, a chemical reaction so bright and perfectly white, is one of the world’s most amazing feats, and to be controlled by what looks like a very ordinary looking and tiny (about 2mm long) wasp-like creature makes it all the more special. From an evolutionary standpoint, I imagine the firefly developed it’s glow over centuries, first starting with a small glow, uncontrolled and faint, and after successive generations becoming brighter and being able to be switched on and off at will, to become the fireflies we see today.
I remember the stories coming from people stranded in swamps and forests, seeing these lights dancing about in the air and calling them fairies, or “willo-wisps”. Tales were that men following these lights would end up deeper and deeper in the forest until they met with their unfortunate doom, drowning or being attacked by larger prey animals. This is understandable, as the light from a firefly could easily be mistaken for the filtered light coming from a far off encampment or torchlight. It was once thought that the firefly was the soul of a person who died in the swamp, calling to travelers to join them in the underworld, and to lead people to their demise. I can only imagine the first person to catch a firefly, and see it glowing in their hand or in a jar, and to watch as all their superstitions surrounding the firefly disappear.
This is the way with all misunderstood phenomena. First, the observance of the unknown. Second, the stories that surround it. Third, the discovery of the truth behind it. And finally, the dispelling of the superstition. However this doesn’t stop the superstitions from existing. In some places such as Africa, the chameleon is seen as a bad omen, and to look into it’s eyes means certain death. Certainly an insult to the amazing chameleon at best, and yet another example of the ways that misunderstandings of the natural world can unfairly target creatures whose only crime was to adapt successfully to their surroundings. Wherever this superstition came from it is as nonsensical as the stories of the firefly deliberately leading travelers to their doom.
Throughout the course of humanity’s coming to an understanding of the universe, many phenomena have been mistaken, either willfully or innocently, by those who observe them. In this case, the humble insect with its only means of communication being light created within its abdomen, mistaken for spirits, demons or angels, here to communicate with us, the living humans. This has had a specific impact on me, having read the brilliant book “Demon Haunted World” by Carl Sagan while on vacation. It was a fortuitous coincidence that I was in fact reading the chapter on UFOs when I first spotted a firefly, with the chapter outlining the different mistakes of mind that people make with regards to unknown phenomena.
In this environment, I think of all the wonder of nature, and how, throughout history, humans have struggled to see how they fit within its majesty. And while these mistakes of mind make the world a more magical place, I think it is far more rewarding to understand the world, to see how it works and truly grasp its intricacies, than to fill it with stories of fancy and faeries. These real life faeries come, not from the underworld, but from the real world, the real universe, from this thing we call reality, and I am so happy to have seen this firsthand.
As Sagan himself said: “For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” I couldn’t agree more.
Fireflies are in fact beetles from the family Pteroptyx, and there are over 9 species of fireflies living in Sabah. The ones we saw were tiny, but some species grow up to 7mm in length.