Damselflies develop “spotty wings” when it gets cold

Background:  Darwin argued that sexual selection (i.e. the competition between males for females, and the females choosing from among competing males) was as important as natural selection (e.g. predators catching the slowest prey) in driving the evolution of traits. Calopteryx splendens, the banded demoiselle, is a fascinating case of this sexual selection. Males have pigmented bands on their wings which they use to signal to females. Females have been shown to prefer males with bigger bands. Further research demonstrated that the substance that produces these spots is the same substance, melanin, that drives the invertebrate immune response. The male damselflies are, therefore, advertising the strength of their immune system to females in an “honest” display.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 17.25.05What we did: I was interested in the extent to which the wingspot size varied with latitude, since melanin production is strongly tied to temperature.  I had samples of C. splendens from two sites, one in Bedfordshire and another in Northumbria (near to the furthest north site where the banded demoiselle is found).  These two populations showed marked differences in the size of the area of pigment with far more pigment in the south, as would be expected if temperature was a limiting factor. You can see this variation in the picture on the right, which shows a Bedfordshire demoiselle on top and a Northumberland demoiselle on the bottom. The species actually changes from having a discrete band to many animals having only a “spot” in the northern population.

Importance: This was the first demonstration of geographical variation in wingspot size and suggested that ecological (i.e. temperature) processes were influencing wingspot size in addition to evolutionary (i.e. female choice) processes.


This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Variation in the wingspot size and asymmetry of Banded Demoiselle Calopteryx splendens (Harris, 1792)”, was published in the Journal of the British Dragonfly Society in 2009. You can find this paper on Figshare.

Image credit: Paul Ritchie, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, http://bit.ly/VIQrHD

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Damselflies change shape as they move north

Background: It has been proposed that animals and plants of the same species vary in their shape and size depending on where they live. Individuals living close to the cooler, northern range boundary might possess traits that increase their ability to deal with cooler temperatures, for example. However, under climate change the places where animals can live are expected to move as warmer temperatures expand the areas where climate is suitable for different species.

What we did: This study was part of my doctoral research and compared populations of three species between their range core and their range margins.  The three species varied in the degree to which they were expanding their ranges under climate change: Pyrrhosoma nymphula (the large red damselfly) is not expanding in the UK and is found all the way to the northern coast of Scotland, Erythromma najas (the red-eyed damselfly) is found as far north as Cheshire and is not expanding its range margin, and Calopteryx splendens (the banded demoiselle) is found as far north as Northumbria and is expanding rapidly.  The results showed that there was greater variation between the core and range margins in C. splendens, the species which was expanding, less difference in E. najas which is barely expanding, and almost no difference in P. nymphula, which has expanded its range as far as it can.

Importance: In order to respond to climate change, species will likely need to shift their geographical ranges.  This involves being able to colonise new habitats which are currently outside of their range. The detection of variation in morphology such as in this study suggests that there might be traits that would facilitate this colonisation at range margins. If it could be demonstrated that the variation in morphology was evolutionary and not the result of phenotypic plasticity, then this would provide important evidence of adaptation to coping with climate change.


This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “Variation in morphology between core and marginal populations of three British damselflies”, was published in the journal Aquatic Insects in 2009. You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Image credit: Jean-Daniel Echenard, CC BY-ND 2.0, http://bit.ly/1AHimY5

Climate change interferes with our use of animals to judge water quality

Background: Water quality is measured in a number of different ways: measuring levels of chemicals and pollutants, measuring temperature and other physical parameters, and monitoring the animals and plants that are living in the water. The theory is that the animals and plants living in the water have certain requirements of their habitat (particularly a need for clean water) and so you can use the presence of certain “fussy” animal groups as a proxy for water quality. The problem is that, under climate change, species are moving around as environmental conditions – especially temperature – changes.  This means that changes in the animal and plant communities at a given site might give the appearance of an increase in water quality while actually the arrival of new species is simply the result of climate change.

What we did: I analysed an extensive dataset of British dragonfly and damselfly (known collectively as the “Odonata”) sightings to look for a pattern of geographical movement since 1960.  Dragonflies and damselflies are an important group in biological water quality monitoring, as they are particularly sensitive to pollution.  I found that the patterns of water quality that would be detected using Odonata at a generic site would appear to change over time with the changes in Odonata communities, independent of any changes in water quality.

Importance: Biological communities are used extensively in the monitoring of freshwaters and this research emphasises the need to take distributional shifts that occur as a result of climate change into account when using this method. It is likely that water quality is improving, with better treatment of wastewater and better enforcement of environmental regulation, but accurate monitoring is the key to continuing improvement. Secondly, this paper demonstrates once more the fact that Odonata are responding to climate change.


This is part of a series of short lay summaries that describe the technical publications I have authored.  This paper, entitled “The impact of climate-induced distributional changes on the validity of biological water quality metrics”, was published in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment in 2010. You can find this paper online at the publisher, or on Figshare.

Image credit: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0, http://bit.ly/1v8EGcK

“Data from above” – quadcopters and thermal imaging in ecology

I’ve been interested in small-scale variation in temperature for sometime, having worked on the impacts of thermal variation on dragonflies for my PhD. However, measuring temperature is a complicated task… Where do you measure? How often? What time of day? I have been thinking about this kind of thing when I started coming across Public Lab projects that were conducting aerial surveys using balloons. That got me thinking about flying, and before you know it I’ve pinched a colleague’s quadcopter and we’re flying (cautiously) around the University of Leeds campus:

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