Here there be dragon(flie)s

Alabama entomologist part of international dragonfly database project

by Sydney Cromwell

With their jewel-toned bodies and glass-like wings, dragonflies have a story to tell scientists that starts with the origins of flight, millions of years ago, and continues to the health of freshwater habitats today.

Dr. John Abbott, the chief curator and director of research and collections for the University of Alabama’s museums, started collecting insects at age five. Now, he’s part of an international team that will spend four years creating the most complete database of dragonflies and damselflies ever assembled.

“We’re not going to be able to look at every single species, but we’re going to come close,” he said.

The project, called GEODE (Genealogy & Ecology of Odonata), is funded by a $2.25 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The other partners in the study are University of Florida, Brigham Young University, the American Museum of Natural History and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, Netherlands.

“It’ll be unlike anything else out there in the insect world,” Abbott said.

The Odonata order of insects includes about 6,200 species of dragonflies and damselflies, Abbott said. It’s a good subject for the database project because “as insect orders go, it’s large enough and it’s an interesting enough group that there’s a lot of cool questions around it,” he said, but not so large that the project would be impossible to complete.

For instance, the 350,000 species of beetles in the order Coleoptera would be far harder to catalog comprehensively.

Once the database is complete, Abbott said it will allow the research team to answer questions about the evolution of Odonata species, particularly related to flight. While dragonfly species look very similar to the average observer, Abbott said there are noticeable differences in wing shape and position that affect how species hunt and fly.

Dragonflies were among the earliest known flying species, with a fossil record stretching back over 300 million years. Studying fossils along with modern dragonfly characteristics — including wing shape, hunting behavior and even color — can show how dragonflies all over the world have adapted to their environments across millennia, Abbott said.

It’s not just about looking into the past, he said. Some dragonfly species are highly sensitive to chemicals or pollutants in the water where they choose to live and to lay eggs, making them useful in understanding the health of freshwater ecosystems like streams and ponds.

The database will also become a public resource for other scientists and students studying dragonflies and damselflies, and it can continue to expand in the future. Public access, and even collaboration, in science has been a part of Abbott’s research for the past two decades.

Dr. John Abbott at work, with his net at the ready. Photo by University of Alabama Photos, via John Abbott.

Growing up on a horse farm in Texas, Abbott said he recalls watching dragonflies in the pastures and seeing their larvae (called nymphs) in the water troughs. His first collecting interest, however, centered mainly on beetles.

“I was a pretty voracious collector starting in middle school,” he said.

In 1989, he was an undergraduate studying entomology at the University of North Texas, and a graduate student mentioned that dragonflies might be a good area of study because there was a lot of research still to be done on them. Abbot took the suggestion and “went full bore,” completing his Ph.D. research on dragonflies.

Abbott’s career has included study of many other insects, including stoneflies, ants and beetles. He and his wife, ecologist and Alabama Museum of Natural History research and outreach coordinator Dr. Kendra Abbott, are currently working on a project at the Paint Rock Forest Research Center, near Huntsville, to improve the efficiency of collecting and identifying insects.

“We are a team all the way through. We love working together and traveling the world together,” John Abbott said.

The traditional method of identifying flying insects, he said, is to use a netlike structure called a malaise trap to capture specimens and bring them back to a lab to identify one by one. However, with thousands of insects caught in a single trap, it can be a slow process.

The Abbotts are trying a method called metabarcoding, where “we can take that sample, grind it up and extract the DNA out of it and then compare it to a library of samples” to identify many insects all at once.

He said the Paint Rock project stems from other metabarcoding work he has done in Texas and Louisiana to identify dragonfly species visiting streams and ponds, which can help guide conservation efforts where DNA samples of rare species are found.

In addition to his research, Abbott’s job with the University of Alabama museum system includes overseeing and preserving a collection of more than four million specimens, including insects, fossils, rocks, taxidermy, animal skins, clay pots and even historically significant furniture. He also tries to promote use of the museum’s collections as a resource for other researchers in a variety of fields.

His own primary research interest continues to be the species of Odonata, “a group that I really enjoy working with,” he said. Along with his own research, Abbott has run Odonata Central, an online database of dragonfly and damselfly sightings submitted by over 5,000 users, since about 2001.

“I think the more informed we all are, the better educated we all are about science, the better we’ll all be for it.”

Dr. John Abbott

“It was one of the early on citizen science initiatives that allowed people to get feedback on their IDs and scientists to collect data,” he said.

Citizen scientists can be eyes and ears for professional researchers, expanding their ability to gather information many times over. 

“From the scientist’s perspective, it’s an opportunity to take advantage — and i don’t mean that in a bad way — it’s an opportunity to take advantage of this huge workforce that’s out there,” Abbott said. “… I can’t hire 5,000 people in my lab, much less can I put them all over the New World. So it’s an opportunity to make use of people that want to contribute like that at a scale that hither before wasn’t possible.”

Odonata Central has an expert vetting system to verify the accuracy of member submissions, he said. The website even helped lead to the discovery of a new dragonfly species, Sarracenia spiketail (Cordulegaster sarracenia), in east Texas based on photos and information submitted by a high school science teacher.

Abbott said engaging people through citizen science can also be a valuable educational tool for important topics like climate change or habitat and species conservation.

“These various types of citizen science platforms out there allow these people that want to be engaged to learn,” he said. “… I think the more informed we all are, the better educated we all are about science, the better we’ll all be for it.”

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