Fireflies are accessible biological magic: jewels of light glinting in summer evenings throughout the world. Silent Sparks is a treasure trove of information that will leave the reader even more astounded by these wondrous insects. Gracefully presented by Sara Lewis, who has studied fireflies for over 30 years as a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University, Silent Sparks is well worth reading from cover to cover. Topics include the life stages of the firefly life cycle, firefly courtship (including “translation” of their visual love messages), the evolutionary value of nuptial gifts, glowworms, the anatomy and biochemistry of firefly light, the marvel of synchronous flashing, eating fireflies (in a word: don't, unless you are a very specific predator), mimicry, ecology, and the relationship between humans and fireflies. Lewis’ appendices include a field guide to common fireflies and guidelines for “Further Firefly Adventures,” including “Talking to Fireflies,” ways to explore firefly pheromones, and a gear list for conducting your own firefly expeditions.
Lewis prefaces the book with “Confessions of a Scientist Enraptured”—and her love for her research subject is evident throughout. Her enthusiasm is infectious—how could any biologist resist: “Their spectacular sex lives is what first got me hooked on fireflies. Lately…I've been fascinated by these stories of chemical defense—such a thrilling mix of poison, treachery, and thieves!” Lewis is not the only researcher to fall under fireflies’ spell, and she chronicles the work—and feuds!—of researchers. (Who knew that firefly research could lead to career-destroying factionalism?) The works of many biologists are presented with clear, detailed, and fascinating descriptions, allowing the reader to see the scientific mind at work, discovering the connections between intricacies of reproductive systems and the “economic transaction” of nuptial gifts; anatomy, chemistry, and physiology of the firefly's flash; the role of Eisner's pet thrush in triggering investigation into firefly poisons; and much more. Sadly, Silent Sparks also chronicles the decline in these marvelous creatures as human activities decrease firefly habitat worldwide, from the golf courses and housing developments of the United States to the shores of Malaysia's Selangor River, famed for display trees of synchronously flashing fireflies. Lewis has hope, though, in the nature societies and individuals beginning to take stewardship for firefly survival.
Silent Sparks is rich in interdisciplinary exploration—you would be hard put to find a chapter in a standard biology textbook that is not presented in the light (no pun intended) of firefly biology and research. Examples abound of biological concepts in process, and biologists in action. As such, Silent Sparks could provide examples and supplemental readings to biology students; it also would be a great candidate for extended text reading for classroom book reviews. The only fault in this handsome volume is that there could be more illustrations—there are several instances in which an illustration would greatly enhance verbal descriptions—however, this is a minor issue. Anyone interested in fireflies, biology, biologists, science, and curiosity will find Silent Sparks a reading treasure.