Blood-sucking mites are worse in mid-summer for damselflies

Background: Parasites drain resources from their hosts in order to survive and reproduce.  The effects that this has on the host have been shown to be substantial in some species of dragonfly and damselfly. However, in order to assess how serious these effects are, we need to know something about patterns of parasitism: how many parasites does an animal carry and how does that number vary throughout the year?

What we did: We had a two year study looking at a single population of the azure damselfly, Coenagrion puella, at a single site in southern England.  All the damselflies (1036 in total) emerging from the pond were caught, marked individually, and the number of parasitic mites that were clinging to them were counted. Technically these mites don’t suck blood, but they do feed on the “haemolymph” of the insects, which is the insect equivalent.  We had a number of hypotheses as to what might drive variations in parasitism: higher temperatures might increase the effectiveness of mites at finding and latching-on to hosts, larger animals might have more parasites, or there might be a difference between sexes in parasitism. We found that most of the variation in parasitism was related to the animals emerging in the middle of the season having the most parasites, while animals emerging early or late had fewer parasites.

Importance: The seasonal pattern suggests that variation in parasitism is the result of ecological interactions where parasites have evolved to take advantage of their hosts’ patterns of development. Given that dragonflies and damselflies have been shown to be emerging at different times in response to climate change, it remains to be seen whether mites will be able to track these changes.


This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Phenology determines seasonal variation in ectoparasite loads in a natural insect population”, was published in the journal Ecological Entomology in 2010. You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Image credit: Brad Smith, CC BY-NC 2.0, http://bit.ly/1q6YTeA

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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, http://bit.ly/1q6HYtH