Recently, Illinois Natural History Survey ecologist Jason Bried and more than 30 co-authors published an article in the journal BioScience as its October cover story, calling for a worldwide effort to monitor not just locations but also quantities of Odonata species—dragonflies and damselflies. Bried and his colleagues argue that this effort is needed so scientists can better understand how these insect species are faring and detect patterns and trends in their populations.
Bried recently answered a few questions about the article, titled “Towards Global Volunteer Monitoring of Odonate Abundance.”
1. What is the primary message you and your co-authors are sending in this article?
That here is all this enthusiasm for dragonflies, and all these species lists and distribution records, yet comparatively little on their abundances. This comes at a critical moment for insect conservation when insects are making headlines—for example, 'The Insect Apocalypse is Here' in The New York Times. But how well do we know this if we only have very localized or limited information on numbers of individuals? Our message to everyone is, regardless if you're a scientist, let's start counting!
2. What are you and your co-authors hoping will result from this article? What are the next steps that could be taken?
Our proposal is simply an add-on to what tens of thousands of people worldwide are already doing with dragonflies. Instead of just recording species at locations and the locations of species, let's also try to count the numbers of each species while we're out there. If lots of people all over the world commit to it, we may in time gain a global perspective on the abundance of lots of odonate species. We doubt there will be a shortage of volunteers—we already have 32 (the authors) and counting.
However, we need to get organized. It won't do any good if people start counting without any standardization or structure. Our next steps are to develop a field protocol and data submission platform and to acquire whatever funding, partnering, students, etc. may be needed before an official launch. The article was meant to be a starting point, and never before (to my knowledge) have so many disparate odonatologists rallied together in one place around a single topic.
3. Why Odonata (an order of predatory insects that comprises the dragonflies and damselflies)? What is particularly interesting about the dragonflies and damselflies?
Adult dragonflies are great gateway insects for citizen scientists because they can be found near almost any water source and can be very easy to observe and identify (even to the species level), which is unusual for most aquatic insects.
Dragonflies are found virtually anywhere that water occurs, including artificial water sources, like cattle troughs and stormwater ponds. Even the most temporary sites, like woodland vernal pools and water-filled tree holes, are bound to have a dragonfly or two lurking about.
They're very interesting to watch because they're also eating machines. Odonates are predators with voracious appetites, consuming lots of mosquitos and other pests. They're also extremely helpful to scientists and can help us understand when the environment is getting sick, both locally near water and across broader landscapes and watersheds. Needless to say, freshwater areas would also be less colorful without these beautiful animals zipping around.
4. What does a successful global initiative look like for citizens and professional scientists working together? Any examples you can point to as models for the future?
The North American Butterfly Monitoring Network is a strong model for coalition building, and its PollardBase platform can be adapted for other standardized monitoring of insects, like odonates. We're hoping to partner with NABM and model our work after its successful platform.
There are many ways to define success in the scientist-civilian partnership realm, but I think there are two key markers: 1) both the scientist and the civilian trusts that the data will matter; and 2) the partnership attracts not only lots of people but lots of people from all parts of the world.
5. How do headlines like “insectagedden” impact your work and the work of others in your field?
Maybe those headlines are a bit premature and the situation hyped, but at least they help put insects into mainstream consciousness. We know they've entered America's mainstream consciousness when discussed on Oprah or in Vanity Fair or the like, but the story is more complex than just overall decline or not.
There was a big study published in Science earlier this year that concluded terrestrial insects, as a group, appear to be on the decline, while aquatic insects, as a group, could be on the rise. While encouraging in the freshwater realm where odonates dwell, the trends almost certainly vary both geographically and taxonomically. Although high-level studies are necessary, we still need more specialized close-ups where possible. Odonates provide an opportunity for really good close-ups with the help of citizen science.
6. Are there any technologies that can help track Odonata populations?
So far the only alternative in detail and scale to a massive volunteer network is weather radar repurposed for insects. Weather scientists don't track individual water particles but clouds of particles falling at a given time and space. Similarly, entomological radar is about tracking insect clouds, but how many types of insects can the radar detect? At what scales can it work? These sorts of questions are being explored in an initiative led by one of the authors. It's hard to imagine ever getting the same level of resolution as on-the-ground observation, but there is only so much ground that people, even in droves, can cover. In the end, the two approaches may greatly complement each other.
7. What advice would you give to citizen scientists who want to get involved with addressing insect abundance?
Join a long-term monitoring program or network. There are networks in the Netherlands, the U.K., and Denmark. In the U.S. there isn't much for abundance, especially standardized or structured counting that we can use to study trends and relative differences among species. For odonates, the PondWatch program focuses on a handful of migratory species. Several states have programs, including a structured abundance survey right here in Illinois. Also, stay tuned for a global initiative!