Discovering Dragonflies with Günther Theischinger
Often brightly coloured or strikingly patterned, it is easy to become enamored with the alien beauty of dragonflies, and the way they flit and fly or perch on plants.
We asked renowned odonatologist Günther Theischinger – co-author of the second edition of The Complete Field Guide to Dragonflies of Australia – to tell us all about how his passion for dragonflies and damselflies started, and some of his favourite stories from the field.
How did your interest in dragonflies and damselflies begin?
Freshwater pools near my childhood home in Austria fascinated me already at five years of age. These pools were often frequented by very impressive large blue dragonflies, males of the ‘Broad-bodied Chaser’ (Libellula depressa). I collected butterflies and moths for 15 years, but was still interested in dragonflies.
In 1963, I discovered in the window of a bookshop Schiemenz’s Die Libellen unserer Heimat (‘The Dragonflies of Our Homeland’). The book was bought in the morning, and my chasing, studying and collecting of dragonflies started the same afternoon and really has not stopped ever since.
Do you have a favourite dragonfly species?
My favourite dragonfly is not an Australian species, but rather the ‘Balkan Goldenring’ (Cordulegaster heros). The female of the species is, measured by the product of wingspan and total length (120 x 100 mm), the largest dragonfly of Europe. The body of the beautiful green-eyed species is black tiger-like patterned with bright yellow. It inhabits clear, fast-flowing streams, and its presence indicates excellent water quality.
Even though specimens were available in museum collections for well over 100 years, they all were misidentified by top specialists as several different species. It was only in 1978, on my family’s last European holiday before emigrating to Australia, that it struck me that the Cordulegaster material collected by us in Greece belonged to a hitherto undescribed species. After the necessary literature research was completed, the material from Greece and other specimens collected near Vienna and Graz in Austria were described as Cordulegaster heros, a species new to science.
For a while it was difficult for some of Europe’s dragonfly specialists to believe that the largest European species was not recognized for so long, and was “on their doorstep”. The discovery was even described as “like an exploding bomb within the community of European odonatologists”. However, time and DNA have shown it to be real, and Cordulegaster heros is now known to occur over much of central and south-east Europe.
Do you have any concerns about dragonfly biodiversity and conservation?
Damage caused by humans through overpopulation, greed, global warming and political conflicts is the greatest danger not only to dragonfly diversity and conservation, but also to a worthwhile survival of our own species. It is my hope that education plus experience will in time be able to create enough reason and healthy useful fear to avoid catastrophic outcomes.
Was there anything new you learned while writing this book?
While writing this book I discovered that in spite of collecting lots of data and information, we, and in particular myself, still know very little about Australian dragonflies!
What part can citizen science play in this field?
Citizen Science can play an important role in documenting fresh water bodies and their surroundings, to keep the habitats of our dragonflies as clean and undisturbed as possible.
What would you like to see the science focus on next in this field?
I would like to see top odonatists with world-wide experience in diversity, zoogeography and molecular research focus on relationships and origin of the diverse Australian taxa listed in the book under ‘genera incertae sedis’ – the genera that have been classified over time as belonging in various families without enough evidence to be confident they truly belong there.
Innovative methods such as analysing Environmental DNA (eDNA) from water samples should be applied to establish the presence of rare and threatened species without too much impact on their habitats and without having to sample the species in question. Environmental DNA originates from cellular material such as skin or excrement that is shed by an organism into its environment, which can be sampled and monitored using new molecular methods.
What’s your favourite dragonfly field trip story?
In 1980, Leonard Müller and I collected exuviae (moulted skins) of two Austroaeschna species in the Eungella area of north-eastern Queensland. For the next 12 years, doing one trip per year, we did not succeed in finding the corresponding adults.
However, this changed in 1993 when my wife and I decided to visit the rainforest in the Eungella area as part of our annual holiday. While Christine had her well-deserved rest in the car, I went to the most promising place nearby and collected as many as seven specimens each of two Austroaeschna species. Later investigation using collections at the Australian Museum Sydney and CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection established that both species I had collected were new to science. I named the more beautiful of the two species Austroaeschna christine in honour of my wife.
Ready to start your own discovery of dragonflies? The Complete Field Guide to Dragonflies of Australia, Second Edition covers eight families of dragonflies and 10 families of damselflies. This comprehensive guide includes colour photographs of species, distribution maps and identification keys, as well as stunning illustrations by Albert Orr.
Available from our website or all good bookstores.
Günther Theischinger has published more than 300 scientific papers, and over the years has described more than 60 new species and several new genera of Australian dragonflies. He has been a visiting scientist at the Australian National Insect Collection in Canberra, and is a Research Associate of the Australian Museum and a Visiting Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, USA.
John Hawking is an Honorary Research Fellow at La Trobe University and former invertebrate ecologist at the Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre, Wodonga. He studied the ecology of dragonfly larvae for his Master’s degree and has since published greatly on their ecology, taxonomy and conservation.
Albert Orr is a professional entomologist, writer, illustrator, consultant and scientific editor. He is a retired lecturer in ecology and invertebrate zoology, still actively researching. His main expertise is with butterflies, moths and dragonflies.