Dragonflies are amazing insects, their existence dates back approximately 300 million years, and some even consider good luck. They’ve also plagued experts for years with their migratory patterns. Thanks to help from citizen scientists, experts were able to not only solve the mystery, but document significant and unprecedented life cycle findings.
Insects normally fall into two life cycle categories: nymph or pupa. Essentially, it’s how insects spend their awkward teen years. Some insects live as a pupa, like a caterpillar; a wormy like existance before completely rearranging themselves into their adult form. Other species live as nymphs, like dragonflies, which are a smaller, but similar version of their future adult selves. Dragonflies only live their adult lives for a few months, but some species spend years as nymphs in the water before metamorphosing into their aerial adult form. Dragonflies are bioindicators, and help experts determine the health of their habitat. Dragonflies need fresh water clear of pollutants to successfully breed and live in the water as nymphs. The more dragonfly nymphs in the water, the healthier the water source, and therefore the ecosystem. Dragonfly nymphs accumulate mercury while living in the water. Initiatives like The Mercury Project asks citizen scientists to gather juvenile dragonflies from national parks to help determine mercury levels of park waters.
Scientists know that insects migrate – some travelling miraculous distances, but not necessarily why or how. Citizen scientists were recruited to observe movements of the 5 most common dragonfly species in order to understand migratory cues and flight pathways. Using 140 years of specimens and 21 years of citizen science datasets, scientists were able to pin down migration patterns and locations. Hydrogen was embedded in the dragonflies during hatching, and was used to geographically place its birth. Temperature plays a big part of their life cycle and migratory habits.
The Mercury Project is ongoing and still recruiting citizen scientists. The Migratory Dragonfly Partnership is asking citizen scientists to add to their database and learn more about North American dragonfly migrations. Dragonfly identification may be hard for the youngest citizen scientists, but gathering nymphs can still be a group effort. There are a lot of resources online to help learn the differences between common species. Dragonflies can introduce concepts like pupa vs. nymph, and inspecting small features of an already small creature. These concepts can be incorporated into art projects that focus on identifying parts of a dragonfly and help solidify what they’ve learned. As always, there are also plenty of books about dragonflies and their life cycle.
A wide spread of insect species are on the decline, and are an integral part of food webs. Figuring out how to restore insect numbers can help our environment as a whole and preserve it for our younger generations. Citizen science opportunities help connect experts to non-experts and allows us to form a community that never stops learning and gives back a the same time.