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Glowing creatures light up Dismal Canyon

By Catholic Online
August 10th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The popular definition of the word "dismal" usually means causing gloom or depression, dreary or dullness. This isn't necessarily true for Dismal Canyon, an Alabama tourist attraction which comes to life with countless indigenous glowing insects that come alive in the area's unique ecosystem.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) -  These creatures, are colloquially known as "Dismalites." These seeming "glowworms," that are actually a type of gnat larva require a very specific habitat to survive and are unique to only a few places on Earth.

Scientifically known as "North American Orfelia fultoni," the Dismalites are the larval stage of the only bioluminescent member of Diptera, or the "fly" order, containing mosquitoes, gnats, midges, and houseflies. An endemic species, these creatures thrive only in the Appalachian Mountains and Cumberland Plateau. They emit a bright blue-green light to attract food, in the form of other flying insects.

While in the larval stage, the dismalites require a very specific habitat to survive. The atmosphere needs to remain humid to prevent from drying out. In addition,  hanging surfaces are required to allow it to build sticky webs to trap the food. There must also be an adequate food supply of insects, and a still atmosphere to prevent lines from tangling.

Dismals Canyon provides the perfect habitat for these unique insects to survive, and when looking up at the moss covered canyon walls it's hard to tell where the Dismalites stop and the stars begin.

In addition to the dismalites, there is also another unusual aspect to the canyon. Until an ice storm destroyed one of them, twin Canadian Hemlocks towered up from the canyon floor. One of them remains, towering 138 feet tall, 8 feet and 9 inches around and with a crown spread of over 50 feet, it looks quite sturdy and healthy for its age of 360 years. It is the largest of its species in Alabama and thought to be one of the largest anywhere in the world.

The hemlock is in an isolated spot hundreds of miles distant from their normal range of growth. It is believed the twins were the sole remnants of arboreal flora pushed south during the age of glaciers. The Canyon is also said to be home to the world's largest Deumaria vine.

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