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Freshwater scarcity ushers Mediterranean dragonflies toward extinction

Dragonflies and damselflies are ancient insects that have been around since the age of the dinosaurs. But now the aerial predators may be in trouble as climate change and human development are drying up the freshwater habitat they need to survive. One in five Mediterranean dragonflies and damselflies is threatened with extinction because of Increasing scarcity of...

Dragonflies and damselflies are ancient insects that have been around since the age of the dinosaurs. But now the aerial predators may be in trouble as climate change and human development are drying up the freshwater habitat they need to survive.

One in five Mediterranean dragonflies and damselflies is threatened with extinction because of Increasing scarcity of freshwater in the region, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said today.

Climate change and habitat degradation, due to the way land is managed, are also affecting the insects, says a report by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


Photo of Large White-faced Darter (Leucorrhinia pectoralis) by Fabio Pupin/IUCN

Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the order of insects called Odonata. They have been around in one form or another since the Jurassic era, well more than a hundred million years ago. Giant specimens with wingspans of more than two feet have been found in the fossil record. About 6,500 species survive today.

Aerial predators that hunt by sight, dragonflies and damselflies generally are found at or near fresh water. The larvae are predatory, aquatic and occur in all manner of inland waters, according to the Web of Life.

Common-Pond-Damsel--(Ceriagrion-glabrum)-photo.jpgCommon Pond Damsel  (Ceriagrion glabrum) photo by Elisa Riservato/IUCN

The Red List assessment of 163 Mediterranean dragonflies and damselflies shows five are Critically Endangered, 13 are Endangered, another 13 are Vulnerable, 27 are Near Threatened, 96 are Least Concern and six are Data Deficient, meaning there is not enough information to classify them, but they might also be threatened.

“It is likely things will only get worse for these unique species as climate change and increased water demand take their toll,” says Jean Pierre Boudot, member of the IUCN Dragonfly Specialist Group and co-author of the report. “Lower levels of precipitation and drought will lead to degradation of the habitats where the majority of dragonflies and damselflies live.”

Glittering-Demoiselle-(Calopteryx-exul)-photo.jpgPhoto of Glittering Demoiselle (Calopteryx exul) by Jean-Pierre Boudot/IUCN

Four species are already listed as Extinct in the Mediterranean, including the Little Whisp (Agriocnemis exilis), the Common Pond Damsel (Ceriagrion glabrum), the Phantom Flutterer (Rhyothemis semihyalina) and the Darting Cruiser (Phyllomacromia africana).

“Dragonflies are generally known for being good indicators of water quality,” IUCN says in a statement about the report. “Major threats for 67 percent of these Mediterranean species are habitat degradation and pollution. The Spotted Darter (Sympetrum depressiusculum), which used to be common in the Mediterranean, is now listed as Vulnerable and is declining due to the intensification of agricultural practices in rice fields.”

Banded-Darter-(Sympetrum-pedemontanum)--photo.jpgBanded Darter (Sympetrum pedemontanum) photo by Fabio Pupin/IUCN

Fourteen percent of these insect species can be found only in Mediterranean freshwater ecosystems, some of the richest and most threatened habitats, among which nine have been assessed as Endangered or Vulnerable. According to the report, the highest numbers of endemic dragonflies are present in the South and West of the Mediterranean, with the Maghreb and the Levant areas being regional hotspots of endemism.

dragonfly-report-cover.jpgThe majority of the threatened species are concentrated in the Levant, southern Turkey and Balkans, northeast Algeria and northern Tunisia.

“The Glittering Demoiselle (Calopteryx exul), for example, is listed as Endangered and is in decline. It inhabits the aquatic habitats of the Maghreb, whose ecosystems are under pressure due to water-harnessing for human use, water pollution, irrigation and drought,” IUCN says.

“Long-term coordinated actions are needed at regional, national and international level, and the results of this report highlight the responsibility that Mediterranean countries have to protect the global populations.

“Though some species are already receiving some conservation attention thanks to international laws, such as the Ornate Bluet (Coenagrion ornatum) which is included in the European Habitat Directive, others are not protected at all, despite their high risk of extinction.”

Banded-Demoiselle-(Calopteryx-splendens)-photo.jpgBanded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) photo by Jean-Pierre Boudot/IUCN

“The selection and protection of key sites are essential to ensure the survival of these species,” says IUCN’s Annabelle Cuttelod, co-author of the report. “Their ecological requirements need to be taken into account in the planning and management of water use, especially for agriculture purposes or infrastructure development. IUCN Red List data can inform both processes.”

In addition to the Mediterranean odonata assessment, 1,912 species of amphibians, birds, cartilaginous fishes, endemic freshwater fishes, crabs and crayfish, mammals, and reptiles have been assessed to date in the Mediterranean region. About 19 percent of these species are threatened with extinction: 5 percent Critically Endangered, 7 percent Endangered and 7 percent Vulnerable, IUCN says.

Spotted-Darter-(Sympetrum-depressiusculum)-photo.jpgSpotted Darter (Sympetrum depressiusculum) photo by Jean-Pierre Boudot/IUCN.

The assessment was carried out with the support of relevant scientists from the countries bordering the Mediterranean Basin in collaboration with the IUCN Dragonfly Specialist Group, to which they contributed with their expertise to gather the data, and to assess the conservation status that would be the basis for future conservation action.

Beautiful-Demoiselle-(Calopteryx-virgo-meridionalis)-photo.jpgBeautiful Demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo meridionalis) photo by Jean Pierre Boudot/IUCN

This project was funded by the European Commission, the Mava Foundation and the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development (AECID).


Ornate Bluet (Coenagrion ornatum) photo by Jean-Pierre Boudot/IUCN


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