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Program seeks help building dragonfly atlas

There are nearly 200 kinds of dragonflies, and its cousin, damselflies, living in New York. And now, the New York Natural Heritage Program wants the public's help in a three-year project to catalogue them.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Quick! What has large protruding eyes, is black with yellow spots along its spindly four-inch long body, has wings a half-foot long and can fly faster than 30 mph? And, oh yeah, it's one of nature's most aggressive hunters.

You're safe. It's only a Giant Petaltail dragonfly.

And while you're unlikely to find one landing on your shoulder in New York — for the Giant Petaltail lives in Australia — there are nearly 200 kinds of dragonflies, and its cousin, damselflies, living here. And now, the New York Natural Heritage Program wants the public's help in a three-year project to catalogue them.

The New York Dragonfly and Damselfly Atlas will map dragonfly and damselfly distribution across the state, highlight regions with exceptional diversity, and further the conservation of imperiled species, said Henry Tepper, state director for The Nature Conservancy, which sponsors the nature heritage program along with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"We're still learning about New York's environment, and this atlas will give us a better understanding of it," Tepper said. "Plus, the Atlas is a project that everyone can participate in. Look for dragonflies whenever you're near water. What you see will surprise you."

The success of the online atlas will depend not only on dragonfly and damselfly experts, but also on the participation of interested members of the public, said David VanLuven, director of the nature heritage program.

"Dragonflies are really hot right now. They are increasingly catching the attention of people who like to look at animals. The variety of species is tremendous ... and the colors are spectacular, neon reds, bright oranges, screaming yellows and vivid blues," VanLuven said.

Program staff will conduct field surveys while the public can report their observations online or by telephone, he said. Audobon New York, the state chapter of the National Audobon Society, will help with public education and outreach, VanLuven said.

Dragonflies and damselflies belong to suborders of the same class of insect. Damselflies are more fragile and have widely separated eyes, compared to dragonflies whose eyes meet on top of the head. A damselfly's wings and hind wings are similarly shaped and folded on its back when it is resting; a dragonfly's hind wings are broader at the base than its forewings and it keeps them spread out at its side when at rest.

Worldwide, scientists have found 2,874 species of dragonflies and 2,700 species of damselflies — but those numbers are constantly changing as new species are found and similar species are combined. There are 316 species of dragonflies in the United States — the largest, the Giant Darner, is about 4 inches long, although its wingspan is not as impressive as some other U.S. dragonflies — plus, 131 damselflies.

Dragonflies are predators, but their diet is limited to other bugs: mosquitoes, gnats, flies, flying ants, termites, butterflies, even damselflies and other dragonflies.

They do not sting or bite, and contrary to the old wives' tales, dragonflies do not sew up a person's lips so they can't eat and starve to death.

They also come with some of the insect kingdom's most colorful names, such as American rubyspot, green darner, cherry-faced meadowhawk, and golden-winged skimmer.

Dragonflies are easy to identify, one of the reasons for nature watchers' growing fascination with them. VanLuven said they also are exciting to try to catch, and not fragile like butterflies, so they can be easily studied once caught.

The survey has been in progress only a short time and already a new species has been added to the state's list, VanLuven said.