Any article that includes the line
The dragonfly family has more species than any other mammal
has got to be worth a closer look. And this one, from Saturday’s Guardian, doesn’t disappoint.
Dragonflies in danger of extinction seek sanctuary at new rescue centre
Pollution, pesticides and habitat loss bring dragonflies close to the brink after 325m years
Dragonflies may have hovered and hunted across the planet for the last 325m years, but their modern relatives are staring extinction in the face.
Don’t fear: dragonflies are no more ‘staring extinction in the face’ than they are warm-blooded, hirsuit creatures that bear live young and lactate. They don’t need rescuing. Indeed, there is no ‘rescue centre’.
All that has actually happened in the world to prompt the Guardian’s latest episode of extinction-porn is that the National Trust, the British Dragonfly Society and the Dragonfly Project have got together to open a visitor centre – a place for people to visit to learn about dragonflies – at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. They have issued a press release about it, and have got a TV personality to perform the opening ceremony.
Naturally, the press release contains a few facts and figures to tempt the press. And how better to tempt the press than with a few bleak-looking statistics about how three species of dragonfly have disappeared from Britain since the 1950s and how a third of the regularly-occurring UK species are under threat? (The one about dragonflies being mammals comes straight from the Guardian’s own imagination.) Also naturally, the Guardian has taken these facts and figures and distorted them beyond recognition to spin a tale about the imminent extinction of all dragonflies everywhere in the whole world.
It follows, by definition, that all the species occurring in Britain must be declining, too. Yep, says the Guardian, it’s just that some are declining more spectacularly than others:
the new centre hopes to reverse the decline of the 42 species found regularly in the UK. Conservationists blame the decline on the loss of wetlands, and pesticides and insecticides drifting from farmland […] Some British species are faring worse than others. White-faced darters have seen a signifcant loss and drying out of the bog pools where they live, while the Norfolk hawker’s limited distribution – mostly in the Norfolk Broads – has left it vulnerable to sea level rises and salt water infiltration.
A perusal of the website of the British Dragonfly Society (BDS), however, reveals that many species are increasing in range and/or numbers in the UK. For example:
Anax imperator – Emperor Dragonfly
‘Widespread in southern England and southern Wales; increasing its range northwards’
Brachytron pratense – Hairy Dragonfly
‘Uncommon but increasing its range. Now widely scattered through England, Wales and Ireland but rare in Scotland.’
Libellula fulva – Scarce Chaser
‘L. fulva is scarce in Britain and is consequently listed under category 3 (scarce) in the British Red Data Book on Insects […] Populations appear to be stable and there is evidence that suggests that it may be expanding its range.’
Orthetrum cancellatum – Black-tailed Skimmer
‘Southern England, parts of Wales and Ireland. Increasing its range northwards.’
Sympetrum sanguineum – Ruddy Darter
‘Resident in south-east England and central Ireland but increasing its range.’
The data provided in the press release come from a report published last year that assessed the conservation status of UK dragonfly species according to criteria set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The last time this was done was in 1987, when six species met the criteria for being classed as rare, vulnerable or endangered. The new report makes it twelve (see Appendix 2). This does not mean, however, that things are twice as bad as they were in 1987, because the two data sets are not directly comparable. That’s because, as the introduction makes clear:
The IUCN Red List categories and criteria have undergone extensive review over the last 20 years. The current Version 3.1 was adopted by the IUCN Council in February 2000 (IUCN, 2001). This revised document has been accompanied by continually improved guidelines on the application of the IUCN criteria (IUCN, 2003; IUCN, 2005: IUCN Standards and Petitions Working Group 2006).
Moreover, despite the Guardian’s determination to extrapolate from the local to the global, endangerment in the UK has little bearing on a species’ vulnerability to extinction. All of the species supposedly ‘under threat’ are also present in mainland Europe – and some extend as far as Africa, Siberia, and even Japan. Only one (Coenagrion mercuriale) is endangered globally.
Likewise, none of the three species that have disappeared from Britain since the 1950s (Coenagrion scitulum, Coenagrion armatum, Oxygastra curtisii) are endangered globally.
And something else that doesn’t get mentioned, by the Guardian or in the presser, is that there have been two additions to the British dragonfly fauna over the same period that three have been lost:
Erythromma viridulum – Small Red-eyed Damselfly
‘Recent colonist (first records 1999). Local but spreading spectacularly through southeast England and the Isle of Wight.’
Anax parthenope – Lesser Emperor
‘Rare but currently annual migrant. First recorded 1996, Gloucestershire; has bred in Cornwall.’
Which adds up to a net loss from Britain of a single species. The colonisations are not, by the way, the result of introductions by humans, but of vagrant populations establishing breeding populations under their own steam. Additionally, there’s a bunch of other species that look poised to colonise our ponds in the near future:
Lestes barbarus – Southern Emerald Damselfly
‘Migrant/Vagrant from Northern Europe, possibly the Netherlands where it has increased recently. First observed in July 2002 in Norfolk. Also in the Channel Islands since 1995.’
Lestes (Chalcolestes) viridis – Willow Emerald Damselfly
‘Vagrant, has bred [possible future colonist(?)]. Widespread on Jersey.’
Sympetrum fonscolombii – Red-veined Darter
‘Fairly frequent migrant, principally to southwest England though scattered records from elsewhere (has reached Scotland). Breeds nearly annually, but colonies seemingly not stable.’
Sympetrum flaveolum – Yellow-winged Darter
‘Irregular migrant but may occur in large numbers (1995, 2006). Has bred after major influxes (e.g. Chartley Moss, Staffordshire, in 1996), but colonies do not persist.’
Dragonflies are strong fliers and, therefore, highly mobile species. They come and they go. As the authors of the 2008 report summarise:
The distribution of a number of Odonata species has changed significantly over the past 20 years. A number of species have increased their range northwards, additional species have been found to regularly breed within Britain and others have lost populations at the edge of their range.
But local extinctions and waves of immigration present a challenge for environmentalism. Because environmentalism is deeply conservative. Environmentalism doesn’t like change. It doesn’t like it when species go extinct, or when they get ideas above their station. Environmentalism, as the Guardian makes clear, would prefer everything to be how it was 325m years ago.