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Rutgers scientists lead study discovering world's longest distance flyer

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A project involving members of the World Dragonfly Association from Sweden, Germany, Japan and the United States turned into the discovery of the world’s longest distance flyer — a dragonfly barely an inch and a half long.

Rutgers—Newark biologists led the study, which began when assistant professor Jessica Ware was visiting her colleagues in Sweden. 

Ware suggested working together on a study of Pantala, a population of dragonflies, and the group agreed to collect specimens from that day forward.

The study, which appears in the journal PLOS ONE, discovered that populations of the dragonfly were found in locations from Texas to Korea to South America, concluding that these insects are traveling extremely long distances and creating a common worldwide gene pool.

There have been a number of precious studies done on Pantala flavescens, but the dragonflies had not received an overwhelming amount of attention in comparison to other species. Their study was the first to examine the population genetics of these dragonflies on a global scale, Dan Troast, a graduate researcher and Wares lab member said. 

“When Daniel Troast entered the program, he was the perfect scientist to do this study with us, as he had extensive experience in dragonfly molecular genetics from undergraduate work he had done in my lab,” Ware said. “We all gave our specimens to Dan, and he took it from there.”

This study provided the first significant evidence that Pantala flavescens should be considered a large, globally panmictic population due to the high rates of gene flow occurring among all geographic regions examined, Troast said.

Dragon specimens for the study were collected from the field by members of the Ware lab and the labs of Troast’s co-authors, as well as donations to the study from private lab collections, he said.

“I sampled a lot (of dragonflies) in Guyana (and) South America, which was a sweaty, hot pursuit as we were close to the equator, running around in the blazing sun, running after dragonflies that fly fast and high above our heads," he said. 

This is a big step forward toward developing a better understanding of P. flavescens, he said. But the surface has only been scratched, with much more to learn and discover about the species.

These details include their migratory routes and behaviors, he said. 

With the investment of time and energy into this research, he said he is pleased with the results and with all the attention the study has received. 

“I feel that this study has laid a solid foundation for future studies to examine the population structure of P. flavescens in even greater detail and I hope that I am able to continue working towards developing a better understanding of these extraordinary dragonflies,” Troast said.

The next step would be to expand the study, using dragonflies from further locations and using isotopes in combination with molecular data, Ware said. The study is important for the Rutgers community and general public to know about.

“When you see a dragonfly above your head in Newark, New Brunswick or Camden, it might be a Pantala that has just crossed the Atlantic Ocean,” she said.

Global panmixia is an exceptionally rare phenomenon in the animal kingdom, Troast said. And to have uncovered evidence that this 4 to 5-centimeter-long dragonfly is globally panmictic is truly extraordinary.

“I would say Pantala has taught us that we shouldn't be too quick to judge the capabilities of an animal based on (its) outward appearance because once you dig a little deeper you may find that a seemingly ordinary species is actually quite extraordinary,” he said.


Samantha Karas is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies and English. She is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @samanthakaras for more.

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