Damselfly researchers tromp through swamps

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VIENNA – Wearing waders and standing in the muck of a pond on a warm summer day, Christopher Pillsbury is pretty sure he’s found the perfect treatment for people he doesn’t like.

“If you ever want to punish somebody, send them here,” said Pillsbury, one of two University of Maine at Farmington students recruited by biology professor Ron Butler to do damselfly research this summer.

But being selected by Butler, who helped coordinate the first-ever Maine Damsel and Dragonfly Survey in 1999, is not a punishment but an honor of sorts. To be selected by Butler for the fieldwork, students must not only like bugs and being in bogs, but also be academic performers, Butler said. He only selects students with grade-point averages of 3.0 or higher to do summer research, he said.

Butler’s research has allowed Maine to add 10 species of dragonflies and damselflies to the list of species that exist in the state. Two of those species had never been found before in the country, he said.

Butler is also working on a five-year butterfly survey, he said.

Pillsbury and UMF student Christopher Stevens are working vigorously on a project designed to see the correlation between the abundance of damselflies as aquatic larvae and adults.

“We know that damselflies and dragonflies are really important in the food web in freshwater lakes,” Butler said. Damselflies exist in fishless ponds because they have not yet adapted to living with fish, he explained.

During the summer, Stevens, a junior biology major with a focus on marine biology, and Pillsbury, a sophomore majoring in biology and secondary education, will identify thousands of specimens of larvae and adults.

Both students were surprised when Butler approached them about the job but have been finding it a great experience, they said. Before the summer, neither one had much background on the damsel fly. Now, they are able to identify many species on the spot.

“Dr. Butler is the expert in the state on these guys,” Stevens said. “It’s really interesting to learn from him.”

The researchers travel to ponds around Farmington and nearby areas, spending 30 minutes at each site for the collection of adults and raking through specified areas to catch larvae, which take much more time to collect. The adults are placed in envelopes and frozen in the lab.

In the wild, damselflies area often eaten by birds or dragonflies. “They don’t live very long after they mate,” Stevens said.

Some days, damselfly collecting can be difficult. Strong winds, overcast weather or temperatures below 64 degrees mean the flies are less active.

Beyond that, the conditions of certain ponds also causes damselfly collecting to be very tiresome, Pillsbury said.

That’s why Butler needs those working him to have another quality beyond their academic prowess: “It’s really important to hire someone who has a good sense of humor,” he said.

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