Published: April 2006
Jennifer Ackerman

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

Among the great pleasures of writing about an organism is gaining a window on the world of scientists obsessed by it. John Matthews, a young ecologist studying the migration of green darners, was among the dozens of wonderful and fanatical odonatologists I met the summer of 2005.

To understand the journeys of these big beautiful dragonflies, Matthews took a marathon journey of his own. He went from Canada to Florida, crisscrossing the United States from the East Coast as far west as Texas, collecting adult dragonflies and larvae at dozens of places along the way. We spent one fascinating day together at Cape May, New Jersey, watching thousands of green darners pass through, thick as mosquitoes and thrumming the warm air in the lee of the cape's dunes. After 7,450 miles (11,989 kilometers), two flat tires, 120 cans of Diet Coke, and hundreds of mosquito bites, Matthews amassed more than 700 samples and is now analyzing them to determine where these creatures begin their journeys and where they end up.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

In July 2005, I attended a gathering of the Worldwide Dragonfly Association in Pontevedra, Spain, where there was much discussion of threats to dragonflies. While few kinds of dragonflies are facing extinction, some 350 species are considered threatened, in large part because the forests and freshwater ecosystems on which they depend are under siege. Freshwater ecosystems cover only 0.8 percent of Earth's surface, but they are the habitat for virtually 100 percent of the world's dragonflies. The degradation or loss of wetlands and fresh waters may imperil something like 20 percent of dragonfly species.

So, too, may the loss of forests, which provide essential and irreplaceable habitat for odonates. Only 6 percent or less of the original area of the world's tropical rainforests remains, and even this is disappearing at an alarming rate. If the destruction continues, many dragonfly species will vanish. It's simple, says Dennis Paulson of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington: "Dragonflies are forest animals; if you take away the forests, you take away the dragonflies."

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

Get a group of dragonfly biologists together and send them into a field or onto the banks of a pond, and out come the nets and specimen bottles. They're out to capture individual dragonflies to help capture the subtle distinctions among species.

I spent some time in the field with Mike May, an odonatologist at Rutgers University with an interest in taxonomy. When Mike didn't have a specimen bottle with him, he would pull a dollar bill from his pocket, fold it neatly into one of those origami paper cups, and tuck his specimen in. When he had more than one dragonfly to handle at a time, he would pop the extra insect between his lips while he readied another specimen envelope. A third hand? I once asked him. "Yes," he said, "but it could also be interpreted as a sign of affection."