THE WINGED DRAGONS OF SRI LANKA
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). The Winged Dragons of Sri Lanka. May-June 2005. Pages 28-30. Serendib, the in-flight magazine of Sri Lankan.
Prowling the wetlands for winged dragons.
Two days ago, I had been in the dry scrub lands of Yala, looking for the ultimate sex symbol of the hunters, the Leopards. Predictably, my search for the Big Spotted One with Kersten Magasdi of BBCs FastTrack, had been successful. We had no less than three encounters with leopards on just two game drives with sloth bear, elephant and a host of other exciting wildlife encounters thrown in.
Today, I was in a damp, marshy terrain, looking for another hunter. One with considerably less sex appeal but more finely designed. In fact so finely designed, that’s its design has stood the test of evolutionary time for several millions of year, from the Carboniferous era. A hunter so perfect, so dangerous, so attuned, that nature saw no reason to tinker anymore with the basic design. An aerodynamic design that can hurtle along the surface of water to snatch prey off the surface, or to fly slowly through dense, tangled aquatic vegetation or through secondary forest. It is armed with two pairs of wings which can power it like a combat jet, or hover like a helicopter. It can bank, veer and shear in flight, an flying machine only in the dreams of an aerodynamics engineers. It eyes are made of thousands of small optical units, programmed to detect the slightest hint of movement in a wide sphere of vision. Its eyes and wings are part of a sophisticated search and kill armament system, more at home on the script of a futuristic battlefield work of fiction.
I was on a search for these hunters. Fortunately for me, I was bigger, very much bigger. I was too large to end up as prey to one of nature’s most efficient hunters. I was after dragonflies, the Dragons of Lanka.
Nature did leave the basic design unchanged, but she had tweaked and played with her designs. She had fitted different hunters into different niches. She had given Sri Lanka at least one hundred and twenty of these winged dragons. Science has formally described only one hundred and eighteen so far. Two lie in museums awaiting description. No one knows how many species are yet awaiting discovery by science. We will never know how many of these creatures of the past, living fossils, died out in the last two centuries under a human induced barrage of pollution and introduction of alien fish species such as Trout.
The larval stage of dragonflies are as predatory as the dragonflies. They lie in wait under the substrate of a river or stream or pond. They will fearlessly attack other aquatic animals several times their size. The larval stage also makes them vulnerable to pollution and introduced fish like the Trout which predate on the larvae.
Much about Sri Lanka’s dragonflies remain a mystery. The larval stage of many are yet to be known. In many species the juveniles are different from the adults. In many, the adult female is different to the adult make, a feature termed sexual dimorphism. With some of our dragonflies, we still don’t know some of the juvenile and the adult phases. So little is yet known of this island’s teeming bio-diversity.
We only know the big picture. We know that at least fifty two species, nearly half are endemic, that is to say found only in Sri Lanka. They have colonized virtually every water body in the island. I have walked on the rolling grassland of Horton Plains National Park and soaked my feet in icy cold water. It would not be long before a glimmer of blue or yellow would catch my eye, on a leaf or a stem. Walking along the harsh inhospitable edges of salt pans or estuaries in Yala, or the northern peninsular or the east coast or Puttalam or wherever, always, little winged rods of blue or red or yellow would take off under my feet. The hunter had been designed to cope with every climatic extreme.
The rank vegetation on the polluted waters of the Beira Lake in the city, inside the monsoon forests of Wasgomuwa National Park, or the moat of the magnificent archeological site of Sigiriya, I would always find these winged hunters. The winged dragons would be omnipresent.
My visit today was to learn more about them, from one of the two people who knew most about Sri Lanka’s dragonflies. Ironically neither of them are Sri Lankan. One is Matjaz Bedjanic, a Slovenian, attached to the Conservation Institute of Slovenia. The other was Karen Coniff, an expatriate Sri Lanka. I had met Karen by chance when I met some of her guests who were birdwatching in Talangama. Learning that her PhD had covered topics in entomology and ornithology, I had suggested she start work on a popular field guide to our dragonflies. I lent her a copy of the Dragonflies of Sri Lanka by Terence de Fonseka, a compilation of the previously published literature. It was voluminous, but impenetrable to the layperson and field naturalist.
Sri Lanka needed a popular style, easy to use field guide in the fashion of the field guides to birds. During the last two decades, field guides to dragonflies had emerged for Europe and America. Books with titles such as Where to watch Dragonflies in Britain and Europe had begun to mark their appearance signifying that dragonfly watching had gathered enough followers for it to be economically viable for publishers to risk their capital on such books. The Americans had even set aside huge reserves, sometimes hundreds of square kilometers as dragonfly reserves. The Europeans had followed suit. I had spent many a pleasant mid morning in the company of the members of the London Wildlife Trust and London Natural History Society looking for Emperor Dragonflies and other winged marvels at Lee Valley Country Park, Britain’s first reserve for dragonflies.
With my eco-tourism entrepreneur’s hat on, we had declared an area of Hunas Falls Hotel as a dragonfly reserve in 2001. In 2004, Jetwing began an ambitious plan to create the country’s first artificially created nature reserve, a wetland reserve in Sigiriya where visitors to twenty plus exclusive chalets will share a nature reserve with dragonflies and birds and other dry zone wildlife.
Technically speaking the order of insects loosely referred to as Dragonflies or Odonata belong to three sub-orders. Two of these sub-orders the Anisoptera and Zygoptera known by their common names of dragonflies and damselflies are found in Sri Lanka. The damselflies are easily told apart from their habit of holding their wings closed over the body and along the axis of the body (or more technically the thorax). They are slim and frail looking, with their eyes separated. Dragonflies often hold their wings spread out, unless they are ‘obelisking’. This is when the hold their wings aloft to minimise the area held to the sun, to minimise heat absorption. Dragonflies have large bulbous eye, joined together, look robust and mean. You would not want to be a small animal on their menu.
Karen marched ahead, with the athletic ease of a yoga instructor (one of the many things she does) and with the practiced air of one accustomed to the outdoors. She had worked before in Nepal helping agriculturists. Matjaz and Karen had worked with me to produce a pictorial guide to the dragonflies of Sri Lanka. The next project, lining up for print, was a field guide, which covered over sixty species with text and short field descriptions. The Talangama wetland was a good place to learn to identify or photograph the commoner species.
Dragonflies are also a good indicator of the water quality. Where it is good, a diversity of species can be found. As we walked around Karen pointed out the different species. On reeds besides the main lake, two Asian Tigers were present guarding their territories jealously. Occasionally one would over-step its mark and fly into the other’s air space to be met with a furious response. An airborne skirmish would arise and the aggressor would retire back to its territory. One Asian Tiger seemed content to share its perch with a Variable Basker. The contrast was striking, the Variable Basker, overall a vivid red, the Asian Tiger a menacing black with yellow bands. Dainty Malabar Sprites, fragile, all blue with black stripes, perched on tiny reeds in the water. An unlucky Bi-coloured Damselfly, red and green, dangled helplessly caught in a spider’s web.
Karen suggested we investigate a drain. Like birdwatchers, dragonfly watchers need to examine a variety of habitats or micro-habitats in this case, in search of their subjects. Red-headed Stripes were flying in tandem. The females would flick their tail onto the surface of algal mats and aquatic vegetation, distributing their eggs. On the grass on the banks, Yellow Damselflies seemed to float in slow motion. We walked around to a weir on the main lake. A Little Grebe bobbed by and an Indian Cormorant watched us idly (two common wetland birds) as we peered amongst the reeds. A male Little Cloudy Darter seemed to be in hiding at the bottom of the reeds, barely visible with its overall dark colouration. The Asian Pintails and Brown-banded Skimmers in differing hues of blue, were bolder.
The final treat was to search for an Adam’s Asian Jewel. As the name suggests, this is a special animal. The male is an emerald green with black rings. They seem to like fast flowing water and Karen knew a place where we could find them. We drove down dirt roads and finally walked through lush paddy fields to a canal. Several males and females had spaced themselves out.
In a few hours we had seen over a dozen species of beautiful dragonflies and damselflies. I would have liked to have spent even more time. The sun was rising and time had flown, I had to leave for an interview with a journalist. Reluctantly I parted company with Karen and the Dragons of Talangama.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a tailored Dragonfly Watching Tour. See www.jetwingeco.com for more details.
Bedjanic, Matjaz, de Silva Wijeyeratne, G., and Conniff, K. (2004) Dragonflies of Sri Lanka. 2nd print. An eight page, A5 sized colour booklet with captioned photographs to 64 species. Jetwing Eco Holidays: Colombo.
de Fonseka, T. The Dragonflies of Sri Lanka (2000). Wildlife Heritage Trust: Colombo. 304 pages. ISBN 955-9114-19-0
A compilation of the literature on Sri Lankan dragonflies. 20 Colour plates.
www.jetwingeco.com has numerous reports and articles and images on Sri Lankan wildlife.
www.srilankaninsects.net has several pages of background information and detailed notes for dragonfly enthusiasts