Animals

Tiny Dragonfly Sets Distance Travel Record

A small dragonfly has just shattered the record for long distance insect flight -- even breaking a record set by Charles Lindbergh.

It may only be an inch and a half long, but the dragonfly Pantala flavescens has just broken the world record for long distance insect flight, according to new research.

The dragonfly's estimated range is greater than 4,400 miles, which shatters the prior record set by the monarch butterfly, which flies about 2,500 miles each way during its migration across North America, the authors write.

The length of the dragonfly's journeys even exceed the distance of Charles Lindbergh's celebrated solo flight from New York to Paris by at least several hundred miles, according to the study, which is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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The research itself has set a record, becoming the first to use DNA to study how far this species of dragonfly - commonly known as the globe skimmer or wandering glider - can travel.

"This is the first time anyone has looked at genes to see how far these insects have traveled," senior author Jessica Ware, an assistant professor of biology at Rutgers University-Newark, confirmed in a press release.

She added, "If North American Pantala only bred with North American Pantala, and Japanese Pantala only bred with Japanese Pantala, we would expect to see that in genetic results that differed from each other. Because we don't see that, it suggests the mixing of genes across vast geographic expanses."

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Ware and her team determined that populations of the dragonfly from Texas, eastern Canada, Japan, Korea, India, and South America have nearly identical genetic profiles. This connection has only one likely explanation, according to the researchers: The dragonflies are traveling very long distances, breeding at their destination sites and are creating a common worldwide gene pool.

The dragonfly's size makes the travel all the more surprising, as usually only relatively large animals are able to carry enough "fuel" to energize such lengthy trips. Godwits (birds) can carry fat within their bodies that helps them to fly over 7,000 miles non-stop, for example. Blubber-packed humpback whales have been documented as swimming over 6,000 miles.

For the dragonfly, their travels skills are more about their body's sleek design and their flying technique.

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"These dragonflies have adaptations such as increased surface areas on their wings that enable them to use the wind to carry them," Ware explained. "They stroke, stroke, stroke and then glide for long periods, expending minimal amounts of energy as they do so."

As for why they go to all the trouble to travel so much, co-author Daniel Troast said that the dragonfly is "following the weather."

One example is that "they're going from India where it's dry season to Africa where it's moist season, and apparently they do it once a year," he said.

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He explained that dragonflies require fresh rainwater for their reproduction process. They mate and lay their eggs in freshwater pools created by rainstorms. They will even dive earthward, mid flight, to reach such ephemeral pools.

Once the eggs hatch and the babies are mature enough to fly after a period of just a few weeks, the young dragonflies join the swarm's intercontinental and now multi-generational trek at the point where their parents left off.

Not all species of dragonflies are such impressive high fliers. A cousin of Pantala, the green darner (Anax junius), is the ultimate homebody.

Ware explained that green darners "don't ever leave the pond on which they're born - traveling barely 36 feet away their entire lives."

The dragonfly Pantala flavescens, which has just broken the record for long-distance insect flight.

Insects and other creepy crawlies may be tiny, but their lineages are mighty, finds a new study that determined the common ancestor of mites and insects existed about 570 million years ago. The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Science, presents an evolutionary timeline that settles many longstanding uncertainties about insects and related species. It found that true insects first emerged about 479 million years ago, long before dinosaurs first walked the Earth. Co-author Karl Kjer, a Rutgers entomologist, explained that mites are arthropods, a group that's distantly related to insects. Spiders and crustaceans are also arthropods.

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Spiders such as the huntsman spider can, like mites, trace their lineages back to about 570 million years ago, according to the new study. The researchers believe that the common ancestor of mites, spiders and insects was a water-dweller.

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Millipedes, such as the one shown here, as well as centipedes are known as myriapods. The most recent common ancestor of myriapods and crustaceans lived about 550 million years ago. Again, this "mother of many bugs" would have been a marine dweller. Kjer explained, "You can't really expect anything to live on land without plants, and plants and insects colonized land at about the same time, around 480 million years ago. So any date before that is a sea creature." Moving forward in time, the most common ancestor of millipedes and centipedes existed a little over 400 million years ago. The leggy body plan has proven to be extremely successful.

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"This is an early insect that evolved before insects had wings," Kjer said. Its ancestry goes back about 420 million years. The common ancestor of silverfish living today first emerged about 250 million years ago. Dinosaurs and the earliest mammals likely would have then seen silverfish very similar to the ones that are alive now.

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Dragonflies and damselflies have family histories that go back about 406 million years. Kjer said that such insects looked differently then, however. "For example," he said, "they had visible antennae." Their distant ancestors were among the first animals on earth to fly.

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"Parasitic lice are interesting, because they probably needed either feathers or fur," Kjer said. As a result, they are the relative newbies to this list. Nonetheless, the researchers believe it is possible that ancestors of today's lice were around 120 million years ago, possibly living off of dinosaurs and other creatures then.

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Crickets, katydids and grasshoppers had a common ancestor that lived just over 200 million years ago, and a stem lineage that goes back even further to 248 million years ago. A trivia question might be: Which came first, these insects or grass? The insects predate the grass that they now often thrive in.

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Dinosaur Era fossils sometimes include what researchers call "roachoids," or wing impressions that were made by ancestors to today's roaches, mantids (like the praying mantis) and termites. "Some cockroaches are actually more closely related to termites than they are to other cockroaches," Kjer said, explaining that this makes tracing back their lineages somewhat confusing. He and his colleagues determined that the stem lineage goes back about 230 million years, while the earliest actual cockroach first emerged around 170 million years ago.

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Termites and cockroaches have a tightly interwoven family history. Termites similar to the ones we know today were around 138 million years ago. Now we often think of termites as pests, but they are good eats for many different animals, which back in the day would have included our primate ancestors.

Flies like houseflies that often buzz around homes belong to the order Diptera, which has a family tree that goes back 243 million years ago. The most recent common ancestor for modern flies lived about 158 million years ago, according to the study. There is little doubt that the earliest humans, and their primate predecessors, had to contend with pesky flies and all of the other insects mentioned on this list. All of these organisms are extremely hardy. The researchers determined that, in the history of our planet, there has only been one mass extinction event that had much impact on insects. It occurred 252 million years ago (the Permian mass extinction), and even it set the stage for the emergence of flies, cockroaches, termites and numerous other creepy crawlies.

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