Studying Dragonfly Swarms with Citizen Science

In July of 2009, a friend and I arrived at a lake to collect water samples for work. We had worked at the lake many times, but something was different that day: several hundred dragonflies were flying over the grass.

We often saw dragonflies, but there were 50 times the usual number and they weren’t in their usual places. We knew something exciting was happening, so we jotted down notes. I returned to the lake twice to record more observations of the swarm and simply appreciate the marvel of nature that I witnessed. Then they were gone.

That experience changed me. I am an aquatic entomologist with an interest in dragonfly behavior, but that swarm captured my attention like nothing else. I needed to know more about it! I looked into the scientific literature to find answers, but discovered that little is known about dragonfly swarms.

A dragonfly swarm over grass. (Courtesy photo)
A dragonfly swarm over grass. (Courtesy photo)

There is a big gaping hole in our knowledge of dragonfly behavior! I learned two important things:

1) There are two types of dragonfly swarms, static feeding swarms (dragonflies congregate in a small area, usually where there are lots of bugs to eat) and migratory swarms (massive numbers of dragonflies migrate to overwintering sites many miles away).

2) Dragonfly swarms are short-lived events. You have to be in the right place at the right time to see them.

So there I was, an entomologist obsessed with dragonfly swarming behavior with a tiny handful of previous studies and very little hope of ever seeing another swarm. I badly wanted to know more about this behavior, but how can anyone study something that they are lucky to see once? I might never see another swarm in my life, but I desperately wanted to study this behavior!

I turned to my blog to answer my questions. Lots of people sought information about dragonfly swarms online to explain what they were seeing in their yards. They often ended up at my blog because I provided information they wanted. Some readers rewarded me for making the information available by sharing their own swarm observations in the comments. One day it hit me: if I formally requested information from the thousands of visitors learning about swarms on my blog, I might collect enough data to complete a real scientific study. Thus The Dragonfly Swarm Project was born!

A map of all of the dragonfly swarm sightings submitted by citizen scientists in 2010. (Courtesy image)
A map of all of the dragonfly swarm sightings submitted by citizen scientists in 2010. (Courtesy image)

After just one year, I’ve learned more about dragonfly swarming than I ever dreamed – and the project is still going strong! I’ll publish the results in a scientific journal at the end of the project to share what I’ve learned with other scientists, but I also share everything online in real time so participants can see how their data contributes to my work. I try to make it as easy and rewarding as possible for people to get involved.

But most importantly, by collaborating with over 650 participants so far, I am tackling a scientific problem that is impossible to research alone – all thanks to the power of citizen science!

Sign up for the Scistarter Newsletter

This is a guest post by Christine Goforth is aomology Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on the aquatic insects of the Sonoran Desert, especially the parental care behaviors of the giant water bugs and using aquatic insects to indicate and manage water quality issues in Arizona.

Categories: Animals, Biology, Citizen Science, Ecology & Environment, Guest Contributor, In the News, Insects, Nature & Outdoors, Ocean & Water

Tags: , , , ,