Dragonflies are aggressive predators that date to the age of the dinosaurs, when an oxygen-rich environment supported species that were larger than many of the common birds we know today.
Modern dragonflies prey on mosquitoes, biting flies and virtually any other insect they can devour. In turn, many species of birds treat dragonflies like so many flying Big Mac’s and devour them voraciously.
Birds aren’t the only ones hunting down dragonflies and their smaller cousin, damselflies. Members of the Minnesota Dragonfly Society go after them enthusiastically with nets. They’re not looking for dinner of course. The members of this state-wide organization enjoy capturing dragonflies and damselflies to identify and release them. Just as birders try to record the number of species they find, many of the Minnesota Dragonfly Society members are in the hunt for the 140 different species of dragonflies and damselflies, all part of the insect Order Odonata believed to exist in Minnesota.
Members of the group participated in the Simon Lake Bio-Blitz in southeastern Pope County, where we caught up with them last Friday. “We heard the word fen,’’ said Curt Oien, one of the organization’s members, when asked what brought them to the event. Dragonflies and damselflies are creatures of the state’s wetlands, rivers and larger water bodies. The Simon Lake Bio-Blitz included an area including the Sheepberry Fen, which holds a calcareous fen along with a natural marsh.
We’ve all had opportunities to marvel at the aerobatics of dragonflies as they whiz and zigzag like flying saucers devouring other flying insects. And every so often, we’re lucky enough to have a dragonfly land on our fishing poles or near enough that we can appreciate their amazing patterns and colors, including many neon-like hues.
Catch one in a net and really take a look at these creatures, and all of a sudden it’s easy to understand why there is a state-wide organization of citizen scientists chasing them. These insects are incredibly interesting and beautiful. “It’s easy to get hooked,’’ said Angela Isackson, one of the members. “Lots of people are really interested.’’
There’s good reason to be interested in knowing how dragonflies and damselflies are doing in Minnesota. They play an important niche in the web of life, and can serve as a canary in the coal mine to let us know how a given landscape is doing.
And how are they doing in Minnesota? That’s very much an open question, the society members said. Unfortunately, until recent times not many people bothered to catch and record the types of dragonflies and damselflies to be found in any given area. We have records to look back and see the diversity of birds or even butterflies to be found in many areas of the state, but not so with Odonata, according to Oien and Isackson.
They and other members of the group are now trying to make up for this by compiling records of what they find at locations around the state.
There remains much to learn. They pointed out that some species of dragonflies that are often believed to be rare may really be relatively abundant, but just unnoticed. Some of these species spend their adult lives as dragonflies in the tops or trees, or over the waters of wetlands where mosquitoes keep us away.
Many in the society are interested in finding the species that are rare, and it’s not because they are looking to add trophies to their lists. If certain species are rare, it’s important to learn their habitat needs and try to protect those habitats, Oien explained.
Habitat is the overriding issue, and unfortunately we’ve lost much of it. The drainage of wetlands and declining water quality have adversely affected dragonfly and damselfly populations throughout southern Minnesota, according to Oien and Isackson.
The signs of the challenges were even apparent on the native prairie and wetland area where the Simon Lake Bio-Blitz was held. Hybrid cattails have infested much of the marsh in the Sheepberry Fen, and consequently degraded the habitat needed by the insects.
Yet the volunteers still found many dragonflies and damselflies to hunt, and considered the Simon Lake area an oasis of diversity in an agricultural region of the state.
To find out how easy it is to get hooked on dragonflies and damselflies, take a look at the organization’s web page: http://mndragonfly.org/
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