To catch a dragonfly in a net, the best strategy is to approach from below and move swiftly, according to BYU biology graduate student Natalie Saxton.
“You kind of just have to swing as fast as you can,” she said. That’s because dragonflies’ enormous eyes offer a 300-degree view of the world, and the insects are the original and probably best fliers on the planet, with wings capable of such precise movement that engineers have studied them to improve drone flight.
Saxton is part of a team of BYU biologists that has been tracking down this fascinating insect around the world, from Vietnam to the islands of Vanuatu. Their goal is to piece together the first-ever phylogenic (genealogical) tree of all 6,300 known dragonfly species and their ancestors.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the tree will enable scientists to study how different species of dragonfly evolved over time through changes in characteristics like vision and flight, which may in turn illuminate how other animals speciate.
Besides traveling to collect specimens of known dragonfly species — and discovering a few new ones along the way — the team receives contributions from over 80 international collaborators, ranging from fellow scientists to amateur dragonfly enthusiasts.
“We get all sorts of strange packages from all over the world with really funky dragonflies that I’ve never personally seen alive,” said BYU biology professor Seth Bybee, a dragonfly expert and the team leader. “For a scientist, that’s Christmas: opening up a box of specimens you’ve never seen before.”
In evolutionary biology, dragonflies are particularly rewarding to study because their earliest ancestors — which were roughly the size of a hawk — predate dinosaurs by more than 100 million years. “Dragonflies are survivors,” Bybee noted. “There have been massive extinction events, but dragonflies have always come through. And what we’re left with today is an organism that's extremely adapted to the world around it.”
The phylogenic tree will also improve dragonfly conservation efforts, which is critical because of dragonflies’ interconnectedness with both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, including their role in controlling pests like mosquitoes, Bybee explained.
“Having so much data in one place — and there’s nothing like this for an insect group currently — will allow us to look at all the dragonfly species in the world and figure out which lineages are extremely unique that we just can’t afford to lose,” he said.
The scientists determine where to place each dragonfly on the tree in part by observing its physical characteristics, such as its wings. They additionally study DNA extracted from living specimens and infer genealogical patterns from older dragonflies compressed in rock fossils or preserved in amber. Bybee and BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor Paul Frandsen have already published some of their findings in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.
The team is also taking a number of steps to share their knowledge of dragonflies with the public, including coordinating a dragonfly display with the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum. To find out more about the research, readers can visit their website.
Both the novelty and the usefulness of the work have been thrilling for the scientists.
“You kind of feel like one of your biology heroes,” said Saxton, “going out into the wilderness at the edge of the world to find new species.”
“We’re looking at something that you see every day and saying, Guess what, there are millions and millions of years of evolutionary history here,” added molecular biology undergraduate Alyssa Pike, who studies the dragonflies’ color patterns. “It’s a joy to be a part of.”