What Are The Dragonflies Telling Us?
Peering at dragonflies for long hours and pondering over their lives has its effects- I see them when I close my eyes. I am unsure of the species, but large numbers fly to and fro between my dream bubbles. It was just two years ago that I started observing dragonflies closely. It was birds and bigger animals that drew me to nature till then. But ever since these winged jewels cast their spell on me, my mind has been occupied with questions, the most poignant one being, “what are they telling us?”
My tryst with dragonflies began due to an unexpected turn of events, when I was tasked with teaching insect ecology to a batch of undergraduate students. Well, what better insect group to introduce other than the dragonflies? They are colourful, omnipresent and reflect changes in their habitats very well. I had to learn in order to teach and I must say, I had not enjoyed the learning process so much in my life before. My objects of study were ancient aerial predators that could be easily found near any water body. But why water bodies? My students were dumbstruck when I told them that dragonflies required freshwater to complete their life cycles. They lay eggs in ponds, streams or marshes where their larvae grow as fierce aquatic predators. When they are big enough, the larvae climb out of water and the adults emerge to take flight. None of my students had even noticed the ‘smaller’ dragonflies or damselflies as they are sometimes called. It was therefore, serendipitous that one fine morning, a damselfly decided to fly inside the classroom to introduce itself to the wide-eyed youngsters. The larger dragonflies and the smaller damselflies together make the insect Order Odonata, though all odonates are often called dragonflies. The most fun part of the course was of course, field work! I took my students to water bodies in and outside the campus and we together documented their odonate diversity. We saw tiny, endemic Kerala Dartlets clinging on to grass shoots at the edge of a marsh and a large Common Torrent Hawk patrolling ponds like a military helicopter. The hunting prowess of the common Green Marsh Hawk amazed us. But the fun couldn’t last forever. Soon, I had to switch my attention to the rest of the syllabus and the semester was over in a flash. However, the dragonflies had stung me (not literally, they hardly even bite people). I decided to do serious research on them and straightaway registered for a PhD.
The habitat closest to my heart was the Kole wetlands where as a kid, I used to go riding my bicycle to watch birds. Even though it is declared as a Ramsar site, Kole wetlands, spread over Thrissur and Malappuram districts of Kerala, have no legal safeguards and are being filled up fast. As the present generation is little interested in agriculture, the paddy fields are being replaced by malls and showrooms. The wetlands are home to thousands of migratory birds in winter and attract nature enthusiasts and photographers from far and wide. However, the invertebrate fauna of Kole remains almost unexplored. I did not have to think twice to choose my study area.
Dragonflies have been used in countries like the USA, South Africa and Austria to assess the health of freshwater ecosystems. Their species assemblages have been proven to reflect the level of human disturbance the habitats have been subjected to. They are veritable ecological indicators. I wanted to see if their species assemblages reflected the water quality of various locations in and around the Kole wetlands. The first step was to make a checklist of all the dragonfly species seen in the vast wetlands. For this, I took my 11-year-old motorcycle and scoured every nook and corner of the wetlands, riding through slush and stopping in between to look for the dragons. A part male-part female Scarlet Skimmer (technically called gynandromorph) and the Emerald- eyed Spreadwing which was being recorded for the first time from Peninsular India were my important findings. In October, the sky became dotted with thousands of Wandering Gliders, migratory dragonflies that came from Africa, crossing the Indian Ocean. Even though I hadn’t started my tests on water quality, the dragonflies of Kole were already giving me clues. The Ditch Jewel and the Oriental Blue Dasher were present in large numbers where the water did not flow and showed signs of eutrophication. Some of the otherwise common and widespread species like the Tri-coloured Marsh Hawk and Crimson Marsh Glider were missing, possibly because of the absence of shade or poor quality of water. They are definitely telling us something, or perhaps, many things. My checklist had crossed 40 species when a friend called, asking for my help in a project.
Kerala had experienced a devastating flood in 2018 and its ecosystems were feared to have suffered impacts. The government wanted scientists to assess the flood’s impact on biodiversity. But how to know which species declined or went locally extinct if we did not know about their presence or abundance in the first place? So a project was underway to assess the biodiversity of vulnerable habitats across Kerala and my friend was part of it. He sought my help for studying dragonflies of Vazhachal Reserve Forests. Although I was preoccupied with dragon-hunting in the Kole wetlands, the allure of meeting some forest dragons was simply too much to resist. So there I was, packing my bag for an adventure in the jungle!
We took the scenic Chalakudy-Valparai route to reach the forests of Vazhachal. The Chalakudy river along with its tributaries, ponds and marshes in the forests held great promise for Odonata exploration. On our first day at Vazhachal, we were greeted by a pair of Great Hornbills that flapped their way across a rivulet. These hornbills are the mascots of the environmental movement that seek to save a part these forests from being submerged due to a proposed hydroelectric project. The project is in limbo now, so is the fate of these hornbills and myriad other creatures inhabiting these forests. Vazhachal did not disappoint me as its ponds and streams revealed dragonflies that I had not seen before. We even named a roadside puddle ‘thumbikulam’, meaning dragonfly pond because we documented over 10 species from the tiny habitat. It included the endemic and highly seasonal Ruby-tailed Hawklet and the beautiful Indian Violet Dartlet. We met four species of Clubtail dragonflies (Family Gomphidae) along the edges of fast flowing streams, three of which were endemic to the Western Ghats. As we explored Vazhachal deeper, we witnessed the marks of fury of the flood, especially near the river bank. Stretches of land were stripped off, devastating the soil, vegetation and very possibly animals that were inhabitants of the riparian forests. I wondered how the flood had affected the dragonflies. Their larvae could have got washed down in the torrents, killing most of them in the process and pushing the others downstream into unsuitable microhabitats. The dragonflies of Vazhachal have a lot to tell us, but we do not know if we lost some of them already in the calamity. Ours was the first study to document their diversity in Vazhachal and we recorded 56 species. I was tempted to take one last peek into the ‘thumbikulam’ before I returned to my wetland study, but was convinced to forgo the attempt by a subadult male Asian Elephant that had decided to quench its thirst from the pool.
The ability to read signs given by nature was considered as great wisdom by our ancestors. In India, farmers of yore predicted rains looking at dragonflies. After humanity embraced technology, we slowly lost the ability to read nature’s signals. However, our technological systems are not yet perfect as our off the mark weather predictions show. Perhaps if we relearn to read the signs of nature and combine that knowledge with our technology, we would have better results. Biodiversity-rich ecosystems are a necessity for human survival and well-being. It is therefore imperative that we take note of the changes happening to our ecosystems. The dragonflies can tell us that. We just need to listen.