A dragonfly is held on the finger of a human hand.

UA Part of National Project to Study Dragonfly, Damselfly Evolution

John Abbott stands on a walking bridge at The University of Alabama with an insect net.
Dr. John Abbott

An international team of researchers that includes The University of Alabama are collecting and analyzing data for the insect order Odonata that contains dragonflies and damselflies to share through an online database available to all researchers.

Supported by the National Science Foundation, data on the evolutionary relationships, ecological niches and geographic area will be used to study how factors like mobility, color, habitat, niche and distribution have driven the diversification of dragonflies and damselflies through evolutionary time. It will result in the most comprehensive database on the phylogeny, ecology and distribution of any insect order.

The database will be available online at odonatacentral.org, a website created more than 15 years ago and maintained by Dr. John C. Abbott, chief curator and director of research and collections for University of Alabama Museums.

“This project is truly the first of its kind for an entire insect order,” Abbott said. “Our efforts will provide tools for Odonata to become the standard as global bioindicators of the endangered freshwater habitat in the midst of human-induced global change and habitat loss.”

Among the most easily recognized insects, dragonflies and damselflies are colorful and fast flying. Their evolution stretches back 300 million years, and there are about 6,200 described species found in nearly all parts of the world. They are important predators in the environment.

They are central to understanding the evolution of flight, as their ancestors were among the first animals to fly. They are also one of a few animal groups that spend part of their life in freshwater and another part on land. They have received much scientific interest, but information about the genealogy, ecology and distribution for each species is not centralized in any one source.

Abbott will work to gather, analyze and answer questions to the data collected.

UA is receiving $513,000 out of a nearly $2.3 million NSF grant. The lead researchers on the four-year project are at Brigham Young University with other collaborators from the University of Florida, the American Museum of Natural History and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands.