- Sri Lankan researchers have rediscovered an endemic dragonfly species that was last seen in 1970 and thought to be extinct.
- Macromia flinti was described more than half a century ago based on a single male specimen; in their surveys in Sri Lanka’s central foothills, researchers encountered a live female of the species, and observed other male specimens, also live.
- Their observations suggest the species has a wider range than previously thought, and could lead to an improvement in the dragonfly’s conservation status from the current category of critically endangered.
- But they note there’s still more research to be done, as well as conservation of the unprotected freshwater habitats that M. flinti appears to favor.
COLOMBO — The first time that scientists described the beautiful metallic-green dragonfly that they would later call Flint’s cruiser was in 1970. Based on a single male specimen, they named the species Macromia flinti, endemic to Sri Lanka.
And then, for the next half century, they never saw another one. No flash of iridescent green and yellow, no flutter of gossamer wings. Nothing.
Until this year, that is, when a group of young Sri Lankan field researchers resurfaced the species that was thought to be extinct, and in the process shed new light on one of the least-known dragonflies around.
“It was only known from a single location based on a single specimen and had no recent records,” Amila Prasanna Sumanapala, one of the researchers and the lead author of the newly published paper highlighting the rediscovery, tells Mongabay. “M. flinti has been categorized as a critically endangered species [on the IUCN Red List], indicating ‘possibly extinct’ status. There had also not been any other surveys to confirm its status either.”
So Sumanapala, from the University of Colombo’s Department of Zoology and Environmental Sciences and a member of the IUCN’s Dragonfly Specialist Group, set out to find it. Together with colleagues Tharindu Ranasinghe of the Butterfly Conservation Society of Sri Lanka and M.G. Sanjaya Pushpalal from the Young Zoologists Association, their field surveys turned up multiple observations of Macromia dragonflies resembling M. flinti, highlighting the need to undertake further research.
The climax of their search was getting their hands on a female specimen of M. flinti during a biodiversity assessment conducted at Dabar Estate, in the Deraniyagala area, something no other scientists before them — not even those who first described the species in 1970 — had ever done.
Photographed live for the first time
It was in the Deraniyagala area of Kegalle district, where they captured and examined the female specimen in detail. With a wealth of photographic evidence, they were able to confirm that they’d rediscovered M. flinti. They were also able to add new locality records, additional observations, the natural history of the species, and compile a visual record through these first ever photographs of the species in life.
Among their observations, they noted similarities in yellow markings and color patterns between their live female specimen and the male holotype — the preserved initial specimen from which the species was originally described. They also noted that the female was slightly larger.
The male holotype was collected from the Uggalkaltota region in Ratnapura district, just south of Kegalle, at an elevation of about 150 meters (500 feet). The recent observations made by Sumanapala and his team expand the species’ known range to include two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the eastern slopes of the Knuckles Mountain Range, and the western slopes of the Central Highlands, as well as the southwestern slope of the picturesque Rakwana Mountains, all ranging in elevation from 100-400 m (330-1300 ft).
According to Sumanapala, the elevation range is an indication of the species’ distribution throughout the foothills of Sri Lanka’s wet and intermediate climatic zones — ideal habitats for the rich diversity of dragonflies and damselflies, from the order Odonata, that call Sri Lanka home.
The female specimen that the researchers studied was found in a river habitat in the foothills of the highlands. They first observed it as it was laying eggs in a shady site by the edge of the river. They also observed male specimens flitting along the riverbank and flying swiftly and close to the water surface.
More research and conservation work needed
The rediscovery confirms the presence of three Macromia species endemic to Sri Lanka: M. flinti, M. weerakooni and M. zeylanica. While the latter is relatively common, the other two are vanishingly rare.
And though the rediscovery answers many questions that have lingered over the past half century about M. flinti, there’s a lot more to be done, Sumanapala and colleagues say.
For a start, the rediscovery should help improve M. flinti’s conservation status from the current level of critically endangered once a new assessment is carried out.
The study also indicates that the species has a wider distribution than previously thought. This calls for more surveys and observations to understand the full extent of its range and preferred habitats.
An important finding is that almost all the specimens observed were found outside Sri Lanka’s network of protected areas, in fragmented forest patches and densely vegetated riverside areas — making the case for better monitoring and conservation of these habitats.
Despite the good news, the extent of occurrence and the area of occupancy of M. flinti are relatively small, and given the multiple pressures on Sri Lanka’s freshwater habitats, the species should still be regarded as globally endangered, Sumanapala says.
“This calls for solid plans on conserving Sri Lanka’s rivers and large streams with dense riparian vegetation,” he says. “This is the way to ensure the survival of the species throughout its entire range. Anyone planning on development activities should consider the implications and support conservation efforts.”
Sumanapala, A. P., Ranasinghe, T., & Pushpalal, M. G. S. (2022). Rediscovery of Macromia flinti with observations on the female and novel faunistic records (Odonata: Macromiidae). Notulae odonatologicae, 9(9), 419-428. doi:10.5281/nodo.v9i9.a5
Banner image of the recently rediscovered Macromia flinti, a rare dragonfly that’s endemic to Sri Lanka, courtesy of Amila Prasanna Sumanapala.