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Friday, 7th February 2020

Conservation research and mahampy: surveying dragonflies to assess wetland health

By Kashmir Flint

Profound levels of degradation have been recorded in Madagascar’s wetlands, where rates of habitat loss may be up to three times higher than in forests, with around 60% of wetlands being lost in recent decades. By frequently surveying dragonflies to build up data on their ecology, SEED's Conservation and Research Programme (SCRP) aims to help build a better picture of wetland species and habitats to broaden actions and encourage further research.

There are pressing conservation issues in Madagascar, with the destruction of 52% of forest cover from 1960 to 2010 and 94% of lemurs now being considered as threatened. However, much of Madagascar’s conservation research and action is based around forest habitats, leaving other ecosystems on the side-lines, slipping closer to irreparable damage or complete loss. Wetlands can hold similar endemism rates as forests, meaning entire species can go extinct with their destruction.

Acisoma ascalaphoides dragonflyAcisoma ascalaphoides, or littoral pintail, is an interesting species. Unseen for over 160 years, it is known from two sites, 1,000km from each other

Dragonflies and damselflies are useful indicators for wetland health, as apex predators for the ecosystems both in their adult and larval stages. They can be sensitive to changes in abiotic factors, including siltation, pollution and water currents. Like wetlands, Odonata (the scientific classification for dragonflies and damselflies) are highly understudied, with few locations being inventoried and little population data known for almost all species.

As it stands, there are approximately 180 species of odonates in Madagascar, with a majority of these (152 species) being listed as endemic, and over half of these species (88) having little data known on their populations. This means it is almost impossible to identify their level of threat. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), responsible for determining global species’ threat, has determined that research on dragonflies should be regarded as a high research priority, and as more research is carried out, we may be able to build up a solid picture of the health of wetland ecosystems and broaden conservation actions.

Volunteers catching dragonflies with netsThey still missed it. Dragonflies are definitely not easy to catch

SEED Madagascar’s intrepid SCRP team have been undertaking frequent dragonfly surveys, aiming to inventory both forest- and wetland-dwelling species and building up the data on their ecology. You may have read about our previous research that led to the rediscovery of Libellulosoma minuta, a species that had been unrecorded in Madagascar for 109 years. Research in the littoral forest in 2004 also rediscovered Acisoma ascalaphoides, an endangered species that went unseen for 162 years after its first discovery. Five species within Sainte Luce are classed as being Data Deficient, meaning not enough is known about them to assess their threat levels.

Now I may be biased, having become quite the odonate nerd over the last year in Madagascar, but I genuinely think there is nothing more enjoyable than picking up a net and catching dragonflies. The excitement that there are further dragonflies out there that are unknown to science (an undescribed species is known from one dried-out museum specimen, and no one has ever caught a Libellulosoma minuta female), well, that just keeps me swinging my net with extra enthusiasm!