Damselflies change the colour of their wings when other species are around

Calopteryx maculata M (Four Mile Creek)Background:  Animals and plants have a wide range of colours, and these different colours play different roles in different species. Some species might be signalling to potential predators that they are toxic (like a wasp’s stripes), others might be trying to hide (like a moth’s speckled grey wings), and others might be trying to signal to the opposite sex that they are high quality mates (like a peacock’s train). However, while there are clear functions in principle, the relative importance of different signals might vary depending on the context within which the animal or plant finds itself.  For example, male ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) have very dark wings and this is thought to allow females of the same species to choose appropriate mates (i.e. to avoid mating with the wrong species). However, the dark pigment can also play a role in temperature regulation. Damselflies cannot generate their own heat and so rely on absorbing heat from the sun, which is helped by the dark pigment. I was interested in how the darkness of the wings varied between locations which experience different temperatures.

What I did: I wanted to collect specimens of this species for analysis from across its entire range in North America, but the range is so large (Florida to Ontario, and New York to Nebraska) that I wouldn’t have been able to travel to sufficient sites within the one season that I have available.  Instead, I asked a lot of local dragonfly enthusiasts to catch and send me specimens from their local sites. I am extremely grateful to all of them for helping, as this could not have been done without their kind volunteering of time and energy.  I ended up with a substantial dataset of animals from 49 sites across the range. The wings of the animals were clipped from the bodies and scanned using a flatbed scanner, and then the amount of pigment was calculated from the image. I showed that the amount of pigment was pretty constant across the range apart from when the species was found with a similar species: the river jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx aequabilis). This suggests that there might be an optimal level of pigmentation that is independent of temperature, but that if females start to struggle to identify males of their own species there might be an advantage to changing the levels of pigment.

Importance: There have been a lot of local experiments on the benefits and costs of pigment in animals (including damselflies) but there have been far fewer studies that have looked at large scale patterns in pigmentation.  These sorts of studies are essential to describe biological phenomena in the field and to reveal initial patterns in nature that might indicate interesting or novel evolutionary processes.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Continental variation in wing pigmentation in Calopteryx damselflies is related to the presence of heterospecifics”, was published in the journal PeerJ in 2014. You can find this paper for free at the publisher.

Image credit: That’s one of mine!

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