Past twilight the canyon lights up with tiny bioluminescent creatures we call Dismalites. These "glowworms" require a select habitat to survive and are unique to only a few places on Earth. They are “close cousins” of the rare glowworms found in Australia and New Zealand.
Guided Night Tours allow visitors to see these unique insects.
Colloquially known as Dismalites, they are the larvae stage of a unique, native, and endemic species of insect (North American Orfelia fultoni) that emits a bright blue-green light to attract food, in the form of other flying insects.
They require a select habitat to survive:
Humidity to prevent them from drying out
Hanging surfaces to allow them to build sticky webs to trap their food
An adequate food supply of insects
A still atmosphere to prevent webs from tangling
Darkness to allow their light to show
Dismals Canyon provides the perfect habitat for these unique insects to survive.
When looking up at the moss covered canyon walls it's hard to tell where the Dismalites stop and the stars begin. When enough are present, they appear to form constellations.
We also have bioluminescent Firefly larvae. So there are Dismalites on the face of the rocks, and firefly larvae in the creek beds.
There are two peak seasons - the Spring peak, late April through May, is the best. Then the Fall peak is the end of September / first of October.
ABOUT THE DISMALITES
"Although the creatures known locally as Dismalites are “close cousins” of rare glowworms found in Australia and New Zealand, they are actually fly larvae" said Auburn University entomologist Gary Mullen, who has studied the insects.
"It’s a very unusual group of flies, very closely related to fungus gnats," Mullen said. Fungus gnats are found near mold and the glowing insects are thought to be so plentiful in Dismals Canyon because of the abundance of moisture and dark areas.
"The steep, well-shaded rock faces and very humid cave-like setting with a lot of algae offers a place where they can concentrate their numbers," he said. "It’s an extraordinarily large concentration of flies."
Although the insects were initially believed to be the only ones in North America, Mullen said since classifying them (they are classified as Orfelia Fultoni; family name, Keroplatidae), he has seen a few others in southern states, just not typically in large groups.
What makes the Dismals population so unusual is the large number of them, he said. On nights when conditions are right the steep rock face looks like a star-filled sky. Best viewing times are May through September, although they are seen in smaller numbers year ’round.
The light comes from a chemical reaction in two pairs of light-producing structures, one in the thorax and one near the tail end, Mullen said.
"The light is produced biologically, similar in principal to what fireflies produce," he said. "They produce a chemical reaction, mixing compounds to create a steady glowing light or a flash. Most are a steady glow." The blue light produced by the "Dismalites" is one of the most blue lights produced via bioluminescence.
The insects use the light to attract tiny flying insects into a web-like substance.
"They trap them in a sticky substance, strands of mucilage," Mullen said. "Not really silk but the same idea, like a spider’s web."
Mullen, whose students raised the larvae to adulthood to determine how to classify them, said it’s unlikely people would see the larvae outside of Dismals Canyon.
"You’d have to look for them very carefully. There’d only be one or a few," he said. "They go almost completely unnoticed in the wet areas along streams. Unless you’re out there in dead of night, you wouldn’t see them."
DISMALITE GUIDED NIGHT TOUR SCHEDULE:
Saturdays at 8 pm
NOTE: The time of the Night Tour changes throughout the year. So check back here for the current Night Tour time before planning your visit.
Night Tours last about 45 minutes.
Reservations are highly recommended prior to arrival.
Call to make reservations:
Only four Night Tours maximum each night - maximum of 20 people per group. Call and reserve your Night Tour as soon as possible. We take guests as they are reserved.
We only take reservations for the upcoming weekend on the Sunday before. Reservations may only be made in person or over the phone. For example, if you want to take a Night Tour next weekend you should call this coming Sunday and be prepared to make the payment during the call. We do not take reservations by email or facebook!
Reservations must be prepaid at the time your Night Tour reservation is made. No refunds on Night Tours, unless the tour is cancelled by Dismals Canyon.
For non scheduled nights, Night Tours can be arranged/reserved for groups of 20 or more. We will accommodate groups of less than 20, but require a guide fee, in addition to the Night Tour fee.
Dogs are not permitted on Night Tours - unless they are small enough to carry or are service dogs.
Bring your flashlight
If you plan on taking the Dismalite Guided Night Tour, you need to bring a flashlight. If you don’t bring one, we sell flashlights in the Country Store.
The canyon is not lit at night, so portable illumination is necessary when the Guided Night Tour enters and exits the canyon. When the tour group stops to look at the Dismalites, everyone will turn off their lights. Otherwise, it's almost impossible to see most of the Dismalites.
Optional RED flashlight
While taking a Dismalite Night Tour, you may see hundreds of Dismalites, but most are very dim and may be hard to see at first. This is due to the human eye's inability to adapt very quickly to the dark.
Most people will have regular (white) flashlights, but some people like to use red flashlights or red filters on their flashlights. The use of a red filter (or simply, a red light), enables your eyes to adapt quicker after you turn off your flashlight.
If you can't see very well in poor illumination, we recommend that you use a regular (white) flashlight.
About Red Light and Night Vision:
Although portable illumination is necessary, the white light from a regular flashlight is detrimental to your night vision. Especially if someone points a flashlight in your face (even if for a brief moment).
The human eye has two types of sensors - rods and cones. Cones provide the best visual acuity (focus and fine detail), but require good illumination. By contrast, rods are very sensitive at low lighting levels, and hence provide a person's night vision. However the rods which impart night vision take up to 30 minutes to adapt fully to the dark (think about how long it takes for your eyes to adapt when you enter a dimly-lit restaurant or dark theater). Just a brief exposure to a bright light can "bleach out" the rods and wipe out a person's night vision for many minutes. Rods are insensitive to red light though.
So by using a red flashlight, you can provide just enough illumination to be able to enter the canyon during the tour without compromising your (or anyone else's) night vision.