Dragonflies on the Move
Summer is a time for dragonflies! A summer visit to nearly any pond or shady stream in North Carolina will likely yield dozens, if not hundreds, of dragonflies jockeying for position along the water’s edge. Many people associate dragonflies with water, and for good reason: female dragonflies lay their eggs in the water and their young (called nymphs) are aquatic. Male dragonflies are territorial, protecting choice patches of water from other males. Males that protect the best egg laying habitats attract the most mates, so fights break out when one male attempts to take another male’s territory. Watching dragonflies at a pond gives you a glimpse into the everyday lives and behaviors of dragonflies and can provide some great natural entertainment.
Watching dragonflies at a pond can also help scientists! While we know a lot about dragonflies, there are still some major questions that remain unanswered. For example, several species of dragonflies migrate thousands of miles each fall from as far north as Canada all the way to Central or South America. Scientists have known for years that these migrations occur, but because dragonflies move long distances and are hard to track, we still don’t know much about how or why dragonflies migrate.
A few years ago, a team of dragonfly researchers formed the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership (MDP) with the goal of answering some of the many questions surrounding dragonfly migrations in the US. While there are a fair number of dragonfly researchers involved in the project, there still aren’t nearly enough to have enough eyes on the ground in enough locations across the US to get a good handle on when and how dragonfly migrations occur. Instead, they decided to open their data collection up to everyone so that citizen scientists everywhere can help gather information about this fascinating behavior. The MDP launched the Dragonfly Pond Watch in 2012 with the goal of working with citizen scientists across North America to collectively learn more about dragonfly migrations.
Dragonfly Pond Watch is a fun project to get involved in. Participants are asked to visit a pond in their area at least once a month and look for the project’s five focal species of migratory dragonflies. Identifying dragonflies can be difficult for many beginners, but the Pond Watch website houses a lot of excellent training materials and general information about dragonflies to help you figure it out. During your visit to the pond, you will count the total number of each of the five focal species you see and make a few notes about what they were doing. 10 minutes a month is enough to provide some really useful data while enjoying a lovely day outdoors with the dragonflies! Or, if you happen to be lucky enough to spot a dragonfly migration, which typically involves thousands to millions of dragonflies moving together in a single direction along a coastline or major river system, you can report that sighting to the MDP as well.
The scientists of the MDP are using the data citizen scientists provide to track migratory movements throughout North America. Many ponds have a sort of background level of dragonflies you might expect to see on any visit on a warm, sunny day. When a migration is passing through, the numbers of dragonflies you see at that same pond can increase dramatically! By looking for population spikes in the data from thousands of citizen scientists and mapping them, the MDP members can follow migrations and learn more about the contributing factors, such as the amount of wind in an area or the temperature, that prompt dragonflies to start moving south.
The annual dragonfly migration typically begins in August, so now is a great time to get started with Dragonfly Pond Watch. You may see huge numbers of dragonflies at your local pond, or a river of dragonflies headed south. Take a few notes on what you see and YOU can be a part of dragonfly migration research! The Museum is also offering some upcoming dragonfly programs and Citizen Science Saturday walks that will provide hands-on training for Dragonfly Pond Watch. We hope you’ll join us for a fun morning of dragonfly learning and science!