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Dragonflies develop a waxy coating to withstand warmer climates

As our planet warms, some creatures struggle, while others adapt in unexpected ways. Dragonflies, those dazzling fliers often associated with idyllic summer days, are surprisingly resilient thanks to their coating.

Biologists at the University of Colorado have discovered that some dragonflies are essentially slathering themselves with nature’s sunscreen — a waxy coating that keeps them cool and adaptable in a warming world.

Waxy coating of Dragonflies

Some dragonfly species produce a waxy compound that they spread all over their bodies. This wax acts as a barrier, preventing moisture from escaping and protecting the dragonflies from overheating.

Dragonflies are cold-blooded and cannot regulate their body temperature internally like humans. Instead, they rely on their environment for warmth or coolness. Finding the perfect balance of sun and shade, while attracting a mate, becomes a dangerous challenge.

Moreover, some dragonflies strategically position themselves in open areas to attract females. However, this means spending extended periods in the sun, which can dangerously increase their body temperature.

The waxy coating solves this problem. It acts like a shield, protecting them from losing moisture and overheating. This coating, called pruinescence, can sometimes make dragonflies appear frosty white.

Dragonfly compound acts as a type of armor

But is this waxy armor an advantage as the climate changes? To find out, the researchers delved into an enormous database of dragonfly sightings — a staggering 387,000 records — compiled over time.

They discovered a key pattern, stating that those dragonflies using pruinescence were the most common species in warm and dry areas.

Digging further, they compared records over time, revealing that dragonflies with the waxy coating were thriving much better than species without it in changing weather conditions. This suggests they might be more likely to survive in a warming world.

Dragonflies’ waxy coating and evolution

Previously, scientists believed mating behaviors were unchanging, possibly making it harder for species to survive environmental changes. These complex behaviors exist mostly to attract mates and were not considered important for broader survival.

However, the study shows that pruinescence helps some insects survive and thrive. It assists with mating rituals, but also aids survival in harsher climates. This shows that mating behaviors can also help a species survive long-term.

This study changes our understanding of evolution. The value of some traits might be much more complex than we thought. Instead of limiting a species, mating-related traits could provide the adaptability needed to survive in a changing world.

Insects, wax coats, and warming climates

The big question now: could other insects be using similar tricks? The researchers suggest that other insects might also have ways to adapt to global warming. Pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and other insects, play an essential role in helping many plants reproduce.

They also help many of the crops that humans rely on for food to reproduce. The possibility that these important insects might have built-in ways to adapt to climate change, ways that scientists haven’t noticed before, offers hope.

Perhaps some creatures are the masters of survival, armed with an extraordinary adaptation to navigate a changing world.

More about dragonflies and their coating

As discussed above, dragonflies stand out as marvels of the insect world, known for their vibrant colors, large multifaceted eyes, and astonishing flying abilities. These insects, belonging to the order Odonata, encapsulate over 3,000 species spread across the globe. They play a crucial role in maintaining ecological balance, serving as both predators and prey within their ecosystems.

Anatomy and appearance

Dragonflies possess a unique and fascinating anatomy. Their bodies are divided into three main parts: the head, thorax, and abdomen. The head houses their large, compound eyes, which provide nearly 360-degree vision, allowing them to spot prey and predators from a distance.

Attached to the thorax are two pairs of strong, transparent wings and six legs. Unlike many insects, dragonflies can move each of their wings independently, contributing to their incredible flying skills. Their elongated abdomen comes in a variety of colors, often serving as a distinguishing feature among species.

Life cycle and reproduction

The life cycle of a dragonfly is a captivating process, involving a complete metamorphosis. It starts with eggs laid in or near water. Once hatched, the nymphs (or larvae) live in the water, where they undergo a series of molts, growing larger with each stage. This aquatic phase can last up to several years, depending on the species.

When ready, the nymph climbs out of the water onto a plant, where it emerges from its larval skin as an adult dragonfly. The adult stage, during which they take to the air, typically lasts only a few months, during which time they mate and lay eggs for the next generation.

Dragonflies are formidable hunters, both in their aquatic nymph stage and as airborne adults. Nymphs feed on a variety of aquatic organisms, including tadpoles and small fish. Adult dragonflies continue their predatory lifestyle, feeding on other insects such as mosquitoes, flies, and even smaller dragonflies. Their ability to hover, fly backward, and even upside down makes them adept at catching prey mid-air.

Ecological importance

Beyond their beauty and awe-inspiring flight abilities, dragonflies play a significant role in their ecosystems. As predators, they help control populations of mosquitoes and other insect pests, contributing to human health and comfort.

Furthermore, both nymphs and adults serve as important food sources for a variety of animals, including birds, fish, and amphibians. The presence of dragonflies in an area often indicates a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem.

In summary, dragonflies are not only fascinating creatures due to their physical abilities and appearance but also because of their ecological significance. They are ancient insects, with fossil records dating back hundreds of millions of years, yet they continue to thrive in a wide range of environments today.

By understanding more about dragonflies, including how they use waxy coatings as a survival strategy, we can appreciate their role in nature and the importance of conserving their habitats for future generations.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.


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