WILMINGTON, Del. -- Fireflies, the neon signs of the insect world, literally flash with a pulse of bioluminescence.
And yet, for the hundreds of years that scientists have been finding and identifying all manner of living things in a taxonomic directory of the natural world, one tiny firefly has escaped detection.
That is, until Delaware State University associate professor Christopher Heckscher went to a boggy peat forest at the Nanticoke Wildlife Area near Seaford.
Well after dusk, Heckscher saw hundreds of fireflies flashing.
"I just knew right away," that it was something unique, he said.
It turned out Heckscher had discovered a new species: Photuris mysticalampas.
The discovery of a new species by a scientist is very likely a first at Delaware State, said Carlos Holmes, a university spokesman.
In fact, new species are a rarity these days, and when they are discovered, it is often in remote and unexplored places in the world, not in the long-settled mid-Atlantic.
For instance, a team of scientists just returned from a tropical forest in Suriname and believe they may have discovered a new species of frog and a new dung beetle there.
But the Chesapeake Bay and Broad Creek were among the first places explored by European settlers, led by Capt. John Smith in 1607 and 1608.
And the nature of where we are, said Heckscher, makes this tiny firefly a very important reminder.
"It's a really good example of how much we have to learn," he said, adding that discovery is still possible.
Heckscher's journey into the taxonomic record book began in 2004.
"I collected a firefly at Prime Hook I couldn't identify and thought it was just a rare species I wasn't familiar with," he said.
The following year he was doing field work at the Nanticoke Wildlife area.
"I was looking for fireflies as part of a statewide survey to document the species that occur in Delaware, so I was trying to find rare or uncommon species that may have been overlooked," he said.
It was dark, and the flashes of fireflies lit up the night sky, he said.
Heckscher thought he might be looking at something new because "the flash pattern was unusual, and when I caught adults, I realized that the flash pattern did not match any known small fireflies that I knew of."
At the time, he was working for the state, and he returned to the Nanticoke site, a place with a mossy-covered, flood plain, forest floor, in 2008, 2010 and 2011.
In 2010, he started working at Delaware State, and that year, he drove his collection of firefly samples south to Florida to consult with one of the nation's foremost firefly experts: James E. Lloyd, professor emeritus in the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of Florida.
"I told him I thought I had a new species," Heckscher said " and . . . within a few seconds of seeing the specimens, he said: 'I've never seen anything like this before.' I knew that if he didn't know it, then it had to be an unknown species."
Lloyd, who has been studying fireflies for five decades, said he was impressed that Heckscher had been so careful in his efforts to properly identify the mystery species.
There are two methods used to identify new species. One is through genetics, and the second is by taking a detailed look at the characteristics of the species.
Heckscher used a dichotomous key to compare specific characteristics of the firefly with known species.
Among the telltale signs: the flash and the size.
The newest firefly is the smallest in the genus.
Heckscher has had past successes with firefly discoveries in the state. In 1949, Frank A. McDermott discovered what would become a new species of firefly in Bethany Beach. In 1953, it was named Photuris bethaniensis.
But after that, people lost track of the firefly, known only in that one area. In 1998, Heckscher and University of Delaware entomologist Charles R. Bartlett rediscovered the lost Photuris bethaniensis in freshwater, intertidal dune swales at Bethany Beach.
Prior to the discovery of the newest firefly, the one in Bethany Beach had been the smallest in the genus, Heckscher said.
Delaware is home to 11 species of fireflies, including the species that we know from summers in the backyard: Photinus pyralus. That firefly is bigger and has a brighter flash than the most recent discovery. In addition, it has a charcoal gray body often rimmed in orange. The Nanticoke fireflies are much smaller, brown and have a different flash pattern, Heckscher said.
And while the common fireflies seem to like urban lawns and trees as habitats, the environs of the new firefly are very different. In both locations, the ground is a moist peat covered in moss. The adults emerge from the moss before they fly, Heckscher said.
There is plenty more to learn about the new species, including whether it also may be found nearby in Maryland, where the habitat is similar, Heckscher said.
Meanwhile, Lloyd said it takes a special scientist to study fireflies. You have to abandon any fears or superstitions about the night, and you have to be willing to work at night when most other people are socializing.
Heckscher's discovery is chronicled in the July-August edition of Entomological News.