Dragonfly Education and Research at the Arboretum

Painted skimmer (Photo: Jean Upton)

Painted skimmer (Photo: Jean Upton)

Dragonfly citizen science began at the Arboretum in 2018 with the Dragonfly Monitoring Project. Volunteers monitor nine sites across the grounds and have submitted over 2,300 observations since then. Each monitoring season helps us better understand the dragonfly community; 12 species were reported in 2018, 14 species in 2019, 20 species in 2020, and 27 species in 2021. In May 2022, the first report of a painted skimmer in Dane County was made by Jane Upton at the Arboretum. Wisconsin Dragonfly Society member Edgar Spalding called it “part of a very unusual influx of migrants of species from the south,” possibly related to the strange weather this spring.

Dragonfly nymph (Photo: Julia Whidden)

Arboretum staff also worked with the Wisconsin Dragonfly Society in April to host a dragonfly nymph (juvenile) identification workshop with experts Ken Tennessen, Freda Van den Broek, and Bob DuBois. Twenty-five participants from across the Midwest learned about nymph morphology and identification, then practiced their skills on nymphs collected from Curtis Pond. Dragonfly nymphs are extremely difficult to identify, and, in most cases, can only be identified to the genus level. Another nymph workshop is expected to take place next year.

The Arboretum also recently became a sampling site for the Dragonfly Mercury Project (DMP), a citizen science study of mercury in dragonfly larvae across U.S. national parks, forests, natural landmarks, and wild and scenic rivers, as well as local parks. Led by Colleen Flanagan Pritz of the National Park Service, Collin Eagles-Smith of the United States Geological Survey Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, and Richard Tanabe of the National Atmospheric Deposition Program, this project aims to assess mercury accumulation in juvenile dragonflies as an indicator of water quality and ecosystem health. Dragonfly nymphs are ideal species for this study because of their position in the food web. Juveniles are aquatic and can remain in this stage for years, eating insects and small fish and being eaten by larger fish and birds. Mercury accumulation in their tissues can therefore offer insight into whether there is a greater risk to larger animals in the food web, including humans. The Arboretum was the first site sampled in southern Wisconsin. The sampling was supported by Beloit College professor Tawnya Cary and seven students from her ecotoxicology class. While the results from Arboretum nymphs are not yet available, results from over 450 sites across the country can be accessed through the DMP data dashboard.

Dragonfly monitor training participants (Photo: Julia Whidden)

To help expand research and education efforts and recruit new members to the Dragonfly Monitoring Project, the Arboretum is offering monthly guided dragonfly walks this summer on the first Wednesday and third Saturday, June through September. The walks, supported by the Wisconsin Dragonfly Society, will be an excellent opportunity to learn about the citizen science project and practice species identification with experts. Because dragonflies tend to whiz past and perch briefly, expert guidance – and practice – can be very helpful. To join the Dragonfly Monitoring Project, email Citizen Science Coordinator Julia Whidden to request access to a training video and supporting materials. Once you have watched the training video, you’re free to monitor and submit your observations to the project.

—Julia Whidden, citizen science coordinator