By Joseph DeSisto
With a flash of blue and green, a common green darner dragonfly tears through a cloud of mosquitoes like a shark through a shoal of fish. At the last critical moment, the darner thrusts her gripping legs forward to snatch a mosquito out of the air. The darner’s ability to move each of its four wings with pristine accuracy and its enormous compound eyes — each with as many as 28,000 lenses — make it one of the most effective predators in the animal kingdom.
Green darners, along with 15 other North American dragonflies, are migratory — they travel north in the spring and return to warmer, southern habitats in the fall. In an effort to improve our knowledge of these magnificent animals, scientists and citizens are working together to track the annual movements of five of these species through the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership (MDP).
The MDP is recruiting citizen scientists from all over the country to help monitor migratory dragonflies. Why study migratory dragonflies? Because dragonflies are important components of wetland ecosystems. Their immature nymphs are aquatic predators of other insects, and the adults take their prey in flight. That means mosquitoes, which spend the early part of their lives in water and the rest in the air, get hit with an ecological one-two punch, becoming prey for dragonfly nymphs and adults. Dragonflies are also important as prey for larger predators, including birds, fish, and frogs.
“Dragonfly migration is a bit of a black box,” said Dr. Celeste Mazzacano, one of the program’s directors.
Even though hundreds of volunteers are helping to monitor migratory dragonflies throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico, the places where dragonflies stop during their migration are largely unknown.
Tracking the migration patterns of dragonflies is important for helping us better understand their roles in wetland ecosystems. In addition, many dragonflies are declining, mainly due to loss of wetland habitats. So understanding where dragonflies visit, and when, is crucial if we want to protect them.
The partnership is actively seeking volunteers to help support this effort, and volunteers don’t need to be dragonfly experts. According to Dr. Mazzacano, the MDP “runs workshops on dragonfly migration, and these see a mix of experienced dragonfly watchers and beginners.”
Regardless of your level of expertise, here’s how you can get started:
1) Visit the MDP website, where you can learn to identify the five migratory species that they are interested in. The common green darner (Anax junius) is one of them, and the other four are the variegated meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum), the spot-winged glider (Pantala hymenaea), the spot-winged glider (Pantala flavescens), and the black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata).
2) Look out for dragons. When you observe one of these dragonflies, make a note of it, along with info such as date and time, location, how many dragonflies were there, what they were doing, which direction they were flying, what the weather was like … really just as much information as possible. The MDP website lists all the info they want you to collect.
3) Watch a pond. You can also participate in the Pond Watch initiative by visiting a pond at least once a month. Once you’ve registered the pond on the MDP website, start visiting the pond and record which dragonflies you see, along with the other information on the Pond Watch data sheet.
4) Submit your results. Register online to submit your observations and become part of this continent-wide effort to learn about how, where, and when dragonflies migrate.
Happy dragon hunting!
Joseph DeSisto is an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut. He is most interested in centipedes and millipedes, but is fascinated by all sorts of invertebrates and writes about them on his blog, Beautiful Nightmares.