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Adding more eyes to track continent-wide dragonfly migrations

I love dragonflies: This video summarizes the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership. A nice example of how the project works can be seen in citizen scientist Greg Lasley's and researcher John Abbott's relationship. They're both friends and colleagues contributing to migratory dragonfly research. Image courtesy TACC.

The dragonfly can be a demon, a symbol of purity, or food - depending on which human customs you follow. But, at least from a biological point of view, they are valuable to humans because they are important predators of mosquitoes, which, according to the Michigan Mosquito Control Association, are the most dangerous animals in the world to us. Today, citizen scientists are helping researchers understand the huge migration patterns of these mysterious insects through the new Migratory Dragonfly Partnership project.

This is a website, where enthusiastic 'dragonfly watchers' - yes they exist - such as wildlife photographer, Greg Lasley, upload their observations into a database of dragonfly migrations over the US, Canada, and Mexico.

"I actually started my own wildlife photography in the early 1970s, so this is something that I've been doing for 40 years. I've had photos published in hundreds of books and magazines," says Greg Lasley in the Texas Advanced Computing Center video. "About 10 years ago, I started looking more at dragonflies, than just at birds."

Citizen scientists, like Lasley, act as field agents for biologists studying animal behavior on large scales. John Abbott is vice chair of the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership and curator of entomology, at the Texas Natural Science Center, US. "We're talking about an insect moving from Canada to Mexico. Just for a handful of researchers that's just far too much space to cover," he says in the video. "With citizen science we can tap into this interest that's growing exponentially, almost daily, within the amateur insect community for dragonflies. This is everyone from active people, with day jobs, who are out on the weekends to retired people looking at dragonflies every day. We get their eyes out there to document everything that's going on."

Adding not just new eyes, but new knowledge too

A child's shocked reaction to a variety of insects at UT Explore 2005.
Oh my... the reaction of school children exposed to biology research at UT Explore 2005. Image courtesy John Abbott.

The processing power of supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center is helping to gather, restructure, and analyze the wealth of new data. Amateur observers continue to add data from across the country and the continent. "I feel as if I'm making a contribution, not just playing a game or entertaining myself. Anybody that wants to spend time learning about any subject in nature can probably find people in the scientific world that are experts in that subject, that can mentor and help you learn if you approach the right people in the right way," says Lasley in the video.

Citizen science is making a contribution to scientific knowledge in various fields. Recently, two volunteers working with the Planet Hunters project found evidence of the first exo-planet within a four-star system. The citizen scientists, Kian Jek and Robert Gagliano, in the US, were even mentioned in a draft research paper published on arXiv.org.

Although the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership website has just launched, a sign of its value may be seen on its sister site, OdonataCentral, which is designed to make global research of dragonflies and damselflies available to anyone.

"It has over 2,000 registered users, who have submitted about 70,000 records to date. These users are also now registered on the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership website. From OdonataCentral, the data has been used to describe a new species, conduct niche modeling analyses, determine state and global conservation rankings, and understand the distributions of species," says Abbott. The next challenge for volunteers is helping Abbott and his colleagues study evidence of whether bird migrations are associated with dragonfly migrations.

- Adrian Giordani

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