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."