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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
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Dragonflies struggling as wetlands recede across the globe

The disappearance of wetlands across the globe harms a broad range of freshwater species, including dragonflies.

(CN) — A Europe-based wildlife conservation organization published a report Thursday that showed dragonflies and other freshwater-based species are threatened as wetlands continue to vanish across the globe. 

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, based in Switzerland, updated its Red List on Thursday to reflect the concerning loss of wetlands and other freshwater ecological systems and the threat this presents to species that depend on those systems for survival, most notably dragonflies. 

“By revealing the global loss of dragonflies, today’s Red List update underscores the urgent need to protect the world’s wetlands and the rich tapestry of life they harbor,” said Bruno Oberle, director general of the IUCN. “Globally, these ecosystems are disappearing three times faster than forests.” 

There are about 6,000 different species of dragonflies across Earth and about 16% of those are now imperiled as wetlands vanish at increasingly alarming rates, according to the report. 

The Hine’s emerald is one example of a dragonfly on the brink of extinction due to extreme habitat loss in its traditional and historic range. 

The distinctive dragonfly with eyes that turn emerald early on in the adult stage of its lifecycle once roamed the wetlands of Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario in great numbers. But their population has been on a steady decline since the middle of the 20th century, to the point where the insect was added to the Endangered Species List in 1993. 

The recovery plan for the species, finalized in 2001, indicated preserving marsh and wetlands throughout its historic range would be critical to the rebound in population numbers. It is the only dragonfly species on the Endangered Species List, but if wetlands continue to vanish due to development, it won’t be the last, conservationists say. 

“Dragonflies are not only gorgeous, they’re also indicator species that tell us a lot about the health of rivers and wetlands,” said Tierra Curry, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The serious threats they face are a huge red flag that we have to do better.”  

Curry said the Biden administration must step up and do more to preserve marsh and wetland-like habitat throughout the United States. 

“The Biden administration has to muster the political will to move away from dirty fossil fuels, change the toxic ways we produce food, curtail the wildlife trade and halt the ongoing loss of habitat,” she said. 

Wetlands continue to disappear due to the incursion of development projects. The United States has eliminated about 85% of its wetlands according to some estimates. Some species that rely on marsh-like habitats, like the ivory-billed woodpecker native to the American South and the Bachman's warbler of the South and the Midwest, have already been driven to extinction. 

The center estimates freshwater species of all kinds are 1,000 times more likely to face extinction than species in different habitats. 

“The ongoing damming of rivers and loss of wetlands wipes out wildlife and harms humans with increased risks of flooding and diseases,” Curry said.

Globally, dragonflies face threats from commercial development. In Southeast Asia, for instance, the destruction of rainforest and other habitat to make way for palm oil plantations have endangered dragonfly populations.

The use of pesticides and herbicides throughout the world has also had a deleterious impact on the insect. 

“Dragonflies are highly sensitive indicators of the state of freshwater ecosystems, and this first global assessment finally reveals the scale of their decline,” said Viola Clausnitzer, co-chair of the IUCN SSC Dragonfly Specialist Group. “It also provides an essential baseline we can use to measure the impact of conservation efforts.”

Adult dragonflies boast two large compound eyes and a pair of strong transparent wings. The combination of these features makes the adults one of the strongest and most efficient hunters in the animal kingdom. 

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