University of Cape Town (2016)

Atlas and Phenology of Dragonflies and Damselflies in South Africa

Project Details

Grantee Organization: University of Cape Town
Grant Amount: $215,900
Contact: Les Underhill
Contact Email: les.underhill 'atsign'
Funding Dates: 01/01/2017 - 12/31/2020


All communities rely on water, especially in rural areas where water is drawn directly from rivers. The group of insects known as Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) are superb indicators of the quality of freshwater resources, because they depend on clean, reliable water bodies to complete their life cycle. Odonata, therefore, are signposts pointing to healthy freshwater habitat. The primary barrier to the use of this group as indicators of freshwater health in South Africa is the lack of adequate, up-to-date baseline distribution maps, and information on seasonality of dragonflies and damselflies. Without knowing where and when Odonata are typically found, it is impossible to assess changes in their populations, and therefore changes in their freshwater habitats, due to development or climate change. This project aims to fill that gap by completing the comprehensive atlas of Odonata in South Africa.

The Atlas project builds off a very successful JRS grant to Stellenbosch University (grant page), which supported the development of the Africa Dragonfly Project at the University of Cape Town’s Animal Demography Unit (ADU). The project generated more than 22,000 records for Odonata in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, that are complemented by an equal number of records submitted by ADU’s active citizen science volunteers. The Stellenbosch project helped to finalize the taxonomic backbone for the species in this group, and improve the Dragonfly Biotic Index (DBI), which are necessary tools for the atlas and its products.

Key Objectives and Activities

The existing ADU database has about 41,000 records of Odonata for South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, but substantial gaps remain. For examples, a quarter of the existing records are concentrated in a single province, KwaZulu-Natal. ADU already works with a cadre of motivated and engaged citizen science volunteers, who will help increase the geographic and temporal scope and resolution of Odonata observations by submitting georefrenced and time-stamped photographs to a panel of identification experts. The atlas concept will first be piloted in KwaZulu-Natal, capitalizing off the relatively high density of existing observations in that province, before expanding to a national scale. Data on species distribution will be used to define Critical Odonata Areas, using the Dragonfly Biotic Index (DBI). The DBI is a tool in which species are assigned a value based on their sensitivity to pollution and habitat disturbance. For an area to support a sensitive species, it must have healthy freshwater.

Planned Outputs

  1. Growth of Odonata observations to 96,000 records (from 41,000 currently), and increase of geographic coverage by 80%
  2. Publication of “The Atlas of Dragonflies and Damselflies of KwaZulu-Natal”
  3. Online publication of “The Atlas and Phenology of the Dragonflies and Damselflies of South Africa”
  4. Publication of “The Critical Odonata Areas of South Africa”
  5. Data underlying atlas will be made available via the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF)

Planned Outcomes

  • Production and use of an updated Red List for Odonata in South Africa.
  • Improved understanding and use of data on seasonality of dragonfly and damselfly species, and their role as indicator species.
  • Engagement and training of the International Association of Impact Assessment in use of Atlas for Environmental Impact Analyses.
  • Transition to sustain project long term, similar to other ADU project such as ReptileMAP and LepiMAP, focusing on monitoring for departures from the baseline data collected during the development of the atlas.
  • Expansion of the project to the regional and continental scale.

Last Updated: August 10th, 2017

Lessons Learned

This project builds on two foundations – a JRS-funded project lead by Professor Michael Samways and Dr Klaas-Douwe Dijkstra (grant page), and the Animal Demography Unit’s own project, called OdonataMAP. As the new project launches, it starts with 28,000 OdonataMAP records and 121,000 records from the JRS project, and the initial growth rate is 10,000 records per year. The project will build distribution maps based on actual records of occurrence of the dragonflies and damselflies from throughout Africa. OdonataMAP is a citizen science initiative, and it enables people from anywhere in Africa to submit photographic records, with date and place.

Related Publications

  • Njoroge, L; Underhill, LG; Navarro, RA. 2017. The Kenyan Dragonflies: past, present, and future. Biodiversity Observations. 8(28):1-16. (link)
  • Underhill LG, R Navarro, AD Manson, JP Labuschagne, WR Tarboton (2016) OdonataMAP: progress report on the atlas of the dragonflies and damselflies of Africa, 2010–2016. Biodiversity Observations 7.47: 1–10. (link)

Project Director Biography

Professor Les Underhill leads the Animal Demography Unit at the University of Cape Town, where he has been faculty since 1972. Underhill is involved in the development of “citizen science” databases, and has headed the ADU since 1991. During his tenure at the there, he has assembled 20 million records of biodiversity informatics data. Underhill, is a member of the Royal Society of South Africa and has a Ph.D. in mathematical statistics. His research focuses on the interface between statistical ecology, biodiversity informatics, and citizen science. While he builds databases, he regards them as a mean to an end: the “influence” of biodiversity databases is measured by the success of processing the database into summaries and analyses which ultimately impact biodiversity policy.

JRS Notes

This grant to the University of Cape Town is among the first in our Freshwater Biodiversity Program and aims to bridge the capacity of data providers with the needs of data users.  The challenge to the project will be to prioritize the areas for mapping Odonata so as to produce useful tools for decision-makers and advocacy and then to conduct outreach and training to promote those tools.  The project is a “spin-off” of the award to Dr. Michael Samways and led by Dr. KD Dijkstra that significantly increased the access to knowledge of African Odonata and advanced development of the Dragonfly Biodiversity Index (DBI).  We hope the continuation of that work and this award will establish Odonata as a practical indicator of freshwater ecosystem health.

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