Citizen Science

Dragonfly Migration: A Mystery Citizen Scientists Can Help Solve

September 16, 2013

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Variegated meadowhawk. Photo: Flickr user Five Acre Geographic under a Creative Commons license.
Variegated meadowhawk. Photo: Flickr user Five Acre Geographic under a Creative Commons license.

Migration season is upon us, but it isn’t just birds that are migrating.  We know that monarch butterflies make a complex annual migration, but the record for the longest insect migration (twice the distance of monarchs) is held by a dragonfly — the wandering glider.

Unfortunately, beyond this remarkable example, we know very little about dragonfly migration.

In North America, although we know that certain dragonflies are migratory, almost nothing is known about where they are coming from and where they are going. It’s surprising (and exciting!) that in these modern times we still have such a big natural history nut to crack.

Fortunately efforts are now underway to take on this challenge.

The migration of the wandering glider was only recently described by a biologist named Charles Anderson who lives and works in the Maldives.  While dragonfly migration has been suspected for at least 100 years, Charles Anderson was the first person to tell the full migration story of any species in his 2009 article in Tropical Biology.

Although a marine biologist by trade, Anderson calls himself “an old fashioned naturalist” and it was the simple observation of thousands of dragonflies descending on the Maldives each October that got him wondering about their origin and destination.  He knew that the Maldives were not their ultimate destination because there is no dragonfly breeding habitat (rain-fed temporary ponds) on the island.

He began to bring together observations from India and east Africa and studied the timing of sightings in relation to seasonal weather patterns.  This approach led to the breakthrough that the Maldives dragonflies were just passing through, on the way to east Africa from India.

They were following the monsoon rains from one continent to another.  As the rains moved to Africa, the dragonflies followed and when the rains moved back to India, the dragonflies returned there.  Like monarch butterflies, the full migration circuit takes multiple generations of dragonflies to complete.

This same species, the wandering glider, is widespread in North America but much less is known about its migration on this continent.  We do know that they migrate northward from the tropics and subtropics in spring, breeding along the way, with some finding their way as far north as the U.S.-Canada border in summer before returning south again in the fall.

It’s not just the wandering glider that is migrating.  There’s also the green darner, the spot-winged glider, black saddlebags, and variegated meadowhawk.  There are eleven additional species suspected to migrate.  The state of knowledge is scant enough that we can be sure that more species will be added to this list over time.

Migrating insects might be the foundation of an airborne ecosystem that wings its way north and south with the seasons.  Beyond sketching out their migration biology, the next step is to understand the ecological role of migrating dragonflies.  From studies of the green darner and wandering glider, we know that dragonflies are using the same migration strategies and timing as migratory birds, moving when the winds are favorable in the fall and spring.

Because migratory birds and migratory insects are traveling at the same times and concentrating at the same places, it’s likely that certain birds are exploiting this abundance of dragonflies to fuel their own migration.  For example, kestrels and merlins have been observed feasting on migrating dragonfly swarms. 

Green darner. Photo: Flickr user Kenneth Cole Schneider under a Creative Commons license.
Green darner. Photo: Flickr user Kenneth Cole Schneider under a Creative Commons license.

 A Science Mystery You Can Help Solve

Solving the mysteries of dragonfly migration can be done only with the help of many “old fashioned naturalists” keeping an eye out for swarms of traveling dragonflies. The best way to help is by participating in a collaborative effort led by the Xerces Society known as the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership. This group is asking for the help of citizen scientists across the continent to contribute their observations of dragonflies on the move and their emergence from ponds in order to piece together the puzzle of dragonfly migration.

Beyond the migratory species, there are a total of 316 dragonfly species in North America (and 141 species of damselflies, their close realtives).  Fortunately, there are now many field guides that can help identify dragonflies.  A good place to start is Odonata Central, which has news on the latest field guides and species checklists by county.  Dragonfly watching is a great complement to birding because just as bird activity settles down in the late morning, dragonflies and other insects become more active as the day warms up.

To hear Charles Anderson’s first-hand account of his migration discovery, check out his TED talk.

Wandering glider. Photo: Flickr user Texas Eagle under a Creative Commons license.
Wandering glider. Photo: Flickr user Texas Eagle under a Creative Commons license.
Joe Smith

Joe Smith is an ornithologist and restoration ecologist based in Cape May, NJ. His current work focuses on beach restoration to ameliorate the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on horseshoe crab spawning habitat along the Delaware Bay, and migratory bird research in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Ecuador. Joe has previously worked for The Nature Conservancy as a conservation ecologist and has done field research throughout the United States and Latin America. His Ph.D. research investigated the wintering biology of migratory songbirds in mangrove forests of Puerto Rico. Joe blogs elsewhere at www.smithjam.com. More from Joe

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26 comments

  1. I have not witnessed over 5 dragonflies here in Kelowna BC, where before there use to be many!

  2. I was just thinking about this very topic because I came across swarms of dragonflies twice last month. Both events were amazing, hundreds for sure. Don’t know what kind though.
    I videotaped one account, I’ll have to go back and look. Left me wondering where they went, they were completely gone the next day. Haven’t seen a single one that I can recall in about a month, here in FL east coast. I’ll keep an eye out!

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  4. Huge swarm of large brown dragonflies hit Cancun, Mexico today on heels of big rainstorm.

  5. I live in Duluth mn. and each summer I see thousands of dragonflies migrating through my yard.I will post next time this happens and will take note of the type they are.I have lived in this house about 12 years and have seen this every year.

  6. Finally noticed dragonflies migrating through duluth, heading in west to northwest direction.These are smaller about 2 to 2.5 inches long with a darker color almost black in color on the last 3/4 inch of the tail.Have seen many larger dragonflies earlier this season but not in migration.Seems in general the dragonfly population here is quite plentiful this year compared to the past few years. S.peterson Duluth MN. p.s will try to figure out the species soon.

  7. There are hundreds of dragon flies flying around our condo in Carolina Beach,NC.I think they are green but some seem to be brown.I have seen this in past years as well,but there seems to be more this yr

  8. On August 31, 2014 we saw dozens of dragonflies darting about in our yard. They appeared to be catching small insects. We do not live near water. We’ve lived at this home in South Bend Indiana for over 30 years and never have seen anything like this. Spectacular!

  9. On September 7, 2014 I saw hundreds of dragonflies fly over my house in Mastic, New York.They were flying from the north to the south and were headed towards beach from around 4 pm to 5 pm. I have lived in this house for over 40 years and this is the first time.

  10. On Sept. 5 we had HUNDREDS of dragonflies in our yard flying around…never saw anything like it before. They were present for a bout an hour and then they were gone. It was magically noteworthy! We live in the country outside of Richland Center, WI.

  11. Second year that common green darner dragonflies have spent about a week swarming up and down my street. Hundreds in early evening spend 1–2 hours flying in circles from about 5 feet to 30–40 feet. They seem to prefer open space rather than wooded areas. This is atypical for this region but I think it may be a new pattern that has developed for some unknown reason. I expect them again next year and will be on the watch the third week of September.

  12. On September 19th, 2014 @ 7:30 pm we saw 1000’s of Dragonflies along I-380 southbound from Cedar Rapids IA to our home in Swisher, IA. About an 8 mile stretch. They appeared to be flying over the tree tops & bushes. We even had many in our small town of Swisher. I never witnessed that before & is was very interesting. I had to google to learn what I was seeing. We have the Cedar River & the Iowa River very near us. We also have many creeks & farm pounds around us. It was hard to tell which direction they were actually heading. Hope this helps! :-)

  13. My children pointed out to me, “All the dragonfly’s that were flying over our house!” They were beautiful! We live in Navarre, FL about 1\2 mile inland and they seemed to be traveling NE. There was a steady stream starting at about 6:20PM and started to fizzle out about 7pm. They were traveling from the SE. Today is Sept.22, 2014.

  14. Live on the west side of Mobile Bay on the water almost on the gulf, thousands of large dragonflies heading north . This is the second day of this, beautiful in the early morning sunlight.

  15. […] most plentiful species of dragonfly, are found on every continent except Antarctica, and have the longest migration of any insect (twice as long as the monarch butterfly.) One reason I enjoy having a native wildlife garden is […]

  16. July 11 2105
    North Topsail Beach on Topsail Island in North Carolina.
    Hundreds and hundreds of dragon flys just flew past my beach house while i was sitting on the back porch. The event provided several minutes of fascination and beauty. All different sizes. Ive never seen dragonflys so big before. It looked like it was raining dragonflys. What an awesome experience.. So thankful to have witnessed it!!

  17. I was at our Marina in Islamorada Florida (mm 85 in the Keys) when I first noticed them heading north flying overhead at about 9 am on July 29th. The steady stream of approximately 3″ long insects was still flying over 10 hours later. I could not hazard a guess as to how many. But, in that times period there were easily 10’s of thousands. It was Biblical if nothing else. I definitely would hope to understand what we witnessed.

  18. We live in Marathon, Florida. For two days know we have observed Dragonflys flying west south west. Not in the numbers observed by Chris McKim in Islamadora. However the numbers were sufficient enough to make you take notice. All moving with intent, and in the same direction

  19. I live in Schertz, Texas. We have had swarming dragonflies for about a month. They never seem to land or get close enough to see what kind they are.

  20. A swarm of dragon flies just passed over our home in Redding, California. We usually have rust colored ones using our pond but this swarm of unknowns passed over.
    12:00 noon PST Aug 30, 2015

  21. My name is Brenda and I live in Streaor Illinois Was very surprised to see dragonflies in flight to who knows where! For I have never seen it before. I couldn’t tell you what kind they were but I can tell you they were very large, larger then I have ever seen here in Illinois. They were almost the size of a hummingbird. They were all flying very high but yet they were very visible to see, even in the distant sky you could see them. I was in total awww to be one that had witnessed them. Of course I talked with others and not everyone in town had seen them. Seems like us on the southwest side seen them so I assume they were heading south west. I have had the opportunity to witness the migrating monarchs in Kansas some years back a moment I will forever remember. For I was riding horseback in the pasture the sun was coming up and there was ground fog and all of a sudden I was surrounded by the monarchs there was so many I could feel them fluttering on my skin and some even landing on me. It was so awesome! I always tell people that it was my closet experience of going to heaven! Early morning sunrise on horseback with millions of monarch butterflies wow was that awesome! Well I never knew the dragonfly migrated so this was fascinating to me. I seen them on August 31 around 6:00 pm and September 1st at around 6:00 pm . they just seem to be flying around and around! Just wanted to share my siting.