Invasive damselflies get bigger as they move through the UK

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREBackground: A large number of species are expanding their ranges in response to climate change. This is also true in the damselflies, where the small red-eyed damselfly (Erythromma viridulum) has recently (around 1998) crossed the sea from France to England.  Since then, the species has moved hundreds of kilometres north in an unprecedented range expansion (at least as far as European dragonflies and damselflies are concerned). What is less clear is what impact this expansion has had on the species. Are the newly-founded populations the same as those that are resident in France? Can we trace the arrival and expansion of the species through genetic techniques?

What we did: Simon Keat was a PhD student at the University of Liverpool who was lucky enough to be just beginning his PhD when the small red-eyed damselfly first established in the UK.  Simon surveyed a number of populations around Europe and in the UK, collecting animals to measure them and extract DNA. With the body size measurements we showed that animals tend to show a strong relationship with latitude: populations further north were much larger and this held for both the older populations in France, Belgium and Germany as well as the newer populations in the UK. Looking at the genetics, we had expected to see declining genetic diversity further north, as a small number of individuals led the charge up the country. However, instead of a decline in diversity in the UK we saw an almost complete lack of genetic pattern.  This suggests that the animals were moving in such great numbers that there was not the time for any local patterns to develop.

Importance: Range expansions have important consequences for many aspects of human life: agricultural pests shift and threaten crops, diseases and their vectors shift and threaten human health, and endangered species shift and potentially move out of protected areas. We have shown that during this particular range expansion there has been negligible change in genetic structure but that newly-invaded areas contain relatively large damselflies.  Since damselflies are voracious predators, this could have substantial implications of local ecosystems.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Bergmann’s rule is maintained during a rapid range expansion in a damselfly”, was published in the journal Global Change Biology in 2014. You can find this paper at the publisher or archived at figshare.

Image credit: Quartl,, CC BY-SA 3.0.


The impact of environmental warming on Odonata – a review [paper summary]

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “The impact of environmental warming on Odonata – a review”, was published in the International Journal of Odonatology in 2012. You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Background: Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) are thought to have evolved in the tropics and possess a number of adaptations that allow them to exist at higher latitudes.  This makes them interesting to investigate in the context of climate change, since these adaptations might facilitate a response to increasing temperatures.

What we did: This paper is a review of the literature looking at the ecology and evolution of Odonata in the context of climate change.  A number of areas are discussed including distributional changes, phenological shifts, evolutionary responses, the effects of drought and the physiological effects of temperature.

Importance: A large amount of work has been carried out on the influence of temperature on the biology of Odonata over the past 50-60 years.  This has come from a variety of loosely-related fields and our review brings this together to provide an overview of the state-of-play concerning our understanding of the topic.

Image credit: Patricia H Schuette, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,

Citizen science needs fancy statistics to detect the impacts of climate change

Background:  Climate change is causing a range of effects in plants and animals. One of the most noticeable is the colonisation of new areas as the environment warms to a point where animals are able to persist where once they could not. However, the sources of data used to detect these kinds of patterns tend not to be systematically collected and so present unique challenges during analysis. In particular, a lot of existing data on sightings of animals that are used to detect trends under climate change originate from enthusiastic amateurs who make a note of which species they see and where.

What we did: I analysed a series of different methods that have been used to control for the effects of recorder effort bias in the detection of range shifts.  This recorder effort bias occurs when there are far more recorders looking for animals in a later period and so the chance of discovering those extreme populations increases. Thus range shifts could simply be an artefact of increased sampling. I demonstrate that the methods that have been used before vary in the detection of range shifts and that some make more sense than others. I follow this up with a case study on range shifts in British Odonata and make recommendations concerning the most appropriate methods.

Importance: Climate change is an important issue and we need cutting-edge analytical tools if we are to properly assess its impacts on the world. I hope that this paper has contributed to this aim.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Accounting for recorder effort in the detection of range shifts from historical data”, was published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution in 2010. You can find this paper for free online at the publisher.

Image credit: Ken Slade, CC BY-NC 2.0,

British dragonflies are emerging earlier in the year under climate change

Background: A variety of responses to climate change have been detected in a variety of taxa.  Among these is a change in phenology – the timing of the life cycle (like the emergence of an adult dragonfly from its larval case as shown on the right). Since some species use temperature as a cue for when to develop, as the environment warms there is a signal of earlier development in these species.

What we did: I analysed an extensive dataset of sightings of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata) over a 50-year period in the UK.  These 450,000 sightings were of around 40 species and provided a detailed record of dates on which different Odonata species were emerging from their aquatic habitats.  I found that there was a significant shift towards earlier emergence which was consistent with that observed in terrestrial species.  I further demonstrated that there was a difference between two groups of species that varied in what stage they over-wintered.  Those species that sat in the water over winter as eggs did not show a response to climate change while those that were larvae over winter did show a response.  I infer from this that the response to climate change is caused by a decline in mortality associated with cooler temperatures in the more vulnerable larval stages.

Importance: As I mention above, a number of studies have demonstrated an effect of climate change on the phenology of animals and plants.  This study showed that the signal was present even for animals that occupy aquatic habitats, suggesting that temperature changes influences aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in much the same way.

This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored. This paper, entitled “Historical changes in the phenology of British Odonata are related to climate”, was published in the journal Global Change Biology in 2007 (my first paper!). You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Image credit: Sally Crossthwaite, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,

Climate change denial: advice for skeptical projects

To round-out this quick series on the climate denial project, I thought I would reflect on some of the aspects of the project in the context of skeptical activism.  There are a wide range of these kinds of projects, and it is worthwhile attempting to share best practice when we can in order to make the most of limited (often volunteer-based) resources.  I know that the Eschaton2012 conference recently had a panel on skeptical activism which probably covered the same points, so I suggest you check that out as well.  Jeff Shallit has some interesting points for individuals, but this will consider what groups can accomplish.  Which leads me nicely into…Read More »

Climate change denial: my part in its downfall

In March 2012 I was involved with a project that sought to make public some poor science that was being taught at a Canadian university.  I have been busy with other things since then (like getting a job…) but now I find myself with a few minutes to reflect on the experience.  I have a tendency to write long posts which I’m sure nobody ever reads, so I’m going to write three short posts on this topic.  In this post I’ll talk briefly about some of the negative response that was raised to the project, primarily by the researcher who developed the course, Tim Patterson.  It is worth noting that the course is being taught again in January 2013.  I’ll follow this up with posts on (i) a response to some criticisms, (ii) experiences with the media, and (iii) advice for skeptical campaigns in general.

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