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Dragonfly Ireland 2019 – 2024 citizen science survey seeking volunteers
Dragonflies and damselflies are beautiful creatures. Their presence near freshwater can provide a useful indicator of water quality. Dave Wall, Citizen Science Officer with the National Biodiversity Data Centre, tells us how your help is needed to monitor and map these creatures between now and 2024…
Dragonflies and damselflies are charismatic insects, easily recognised by their large size and dazzling body colours. This makes them a good target for biological recording. They spend most of their lives as aquatic nymphs, so their presence at freshwater sites can provide a useful indicator of water quality. Some species also have specific habitat and climate requirements which make them potential bio-indicators for habitat quality and climate change.
To say that dragonflies and damselflies have a long history would be something of an understatement. The earliest dragonfly ancestors pre-date the dinosaurs and are found in European Upper Carboniferous rocks, dating back 350 million years. These ancestors of dragonflies and damselflies included the largest winged insects that ever lived, with a two-and-a-half-foot wingspan. Modern dragonflies and damselflies appeared on the scene around 250 million years ago.
Historically known as ‘Devil’s Darning Needles’, they were associated with evil in many European cultures, but we now know that they are in fact harmless to humans. They are however a very effective predator on other flying insects, with a 95% success rate in hunting. They feed on a range of species including midges, mosquitos, flies, wasps, butterflies, and other dragonflies and damselflies.
Dragonflies vs Damselflies
While the two groups superficially look similar, there are a number of pointers that may be used to tell dragonflies and damselflies apart.
Dragonflies are larger and more robust looking, and their bodies have a shorter, stockier appearance. Damselflies have longer, slender looking bodies.
In dragonflies the hind wings are usually shorter and broader than the forewings, they are strong fliers and can be found well away from water. Damselfly wings are roughly of equal size, they are weaker flyers and tend to stay close to water.
The eyes of dragonflies are large and close together, making up much of the head of the animal. Damselflies’ eyes are widely separated.
When resting, dragonflies hold their wings spread out to the side or slightly forwards. Damselflies rest with their wings partially or fully folded backwards along the body.
Dragonfly and damselfly life cycle
The life cycle of dragonflies and damselflies consists of three distinct stages. The eggs are tiny (<0.75mm) and are laid on the stems or leaves of aquatic plants, or into water or wet mud. The eggs hatch in 2-5 weeks, however, eggs laid in autumn may enter a period of suspended development and will hatch the following spring. Dragonfly larvae are larger and more robust than damselfly larvae. As in the adults, the eyes of damselfly larvae are set far apart. Larval development typically lasts one or two years but can take up to 5 years for some species. Larvae feed on freshwater macro-invertebrates and even small fish.
Newly emerged adult dragonflies and damselflies are termed ‘tenerals’. These are very delicate and should not be handled. They show little body colouration and have a distinct sheen to the wing membranes. The body colours become more vivid with time. Adults live for between 2 weeks and 4 months, depending on species. When adults reach sexual maturity, they return to water to mate and lay. In poor weather and low temperatures, dragonflies and damselflies cannot fly and will rest in ground vegetation, trees, and shrubs. Dragonflies and damselflies are predated upon by birds, spiders, frogs, newts, other dragonflies and even carnivorous plants.
Threats to Dragonflies and Damselflies
Globally, at least one in ten dragonfly and damselfly species are threatened with extinction. In the last assessment of the conservation status of the 24 species resident in Ireland, four species were assessed as threatened and one as near threatened. The remaining species were assessed as least concern. However, it is almost 20 years since the last major survey of dragonflies and damselflies in Ireland and new data is required for a fresh assessment of their conservation status. The main conservation threats facing Irish dragonflies and damselflies are habitat loss and water pollution. Three of the threatened species, Northern Emerald, Downy Emerald and Irish Damselfly are found in low nutrient status wetlands and the change brought about by enrichment of these habitats is considered their primary conservation threat.
Dragonfly Ireland 2019 – 2024
Dragonfly Ireland 2019 – 2024 is an all-Ireland survey of dragonflies and damselflies, and their habitats. The survey is coordinated by the National Biodiversity Data Centre in the Republic of Ireland and by the Centre for Environmental Data and Recording in Northern Ireland. Dragonfly Ireland 2019-2024 is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of a citizen science project focusing on aquatic species and their potential as bioindicators. The goals of Dragonfly Ireland include:
- Collecting verified dragonfly and damselfly records, contributing to a 2024 Dragonfly Atlas.
- Exploring the use of dragonflies and damselflies as bio-indicators of freshwater habitat quality.
- Engaging with the public to increase awareness of water quality and climate change.
- Developing and supporting a network of trained and experienced dragonfly recorders in Ireland.
Dragonfly Ireland will also generate important information on some of Ireland’s small water bodies. Despite the widespread nature of small water bodies in the Irish landscape, they are a poorly understood habitat, and little is known about their ecological value. Collecting data on habitats and the associated dragonfly and damselfly fauna will help to fill this knowledge gap.
How to get involved
The project offers three levels of participation to volunteers:
- Dragonfly Spotter encourages the submission of casual sightings of any Dragonfly or Damselfly species.
- Dragonfly Recorder asks volunteers to conduct timed surveys of a freshwater site, record all dragonfly and damselfly species present, estimate their numbers, and assess their habitat. Two surveys must be completed, one in May/June and the second between July and September.
- Dragonfly Monitor asks volunteers to conduct a minimum of four surveys at their local site, and to repeat site surveys annually.
If you would like to participate in Dragonfly Ireland 2019 – 2024,
further information is available at:
Sightings of Dragonflies and Damselflies in Northern Ireland can be
submitted at: www2.habitas.org.uk/records/dragonflies