Finding Dragons

Finding Dragons

by Erin Banks Rusby rerinted from the Idaho Press

n the summer of 2023, a group of high school students and adults converged over their shared interest in science and dragonflies.

Known as the Finding Dragons program, the effort aimed to provide hands-on, publishable research experience to high school students and adults, while answering some key questions about the health and history of dragonfly species — offering clues into how they have weathered stress in the past, and how they might be affected by climate change.

Their findings so far have been published in the International Journal of Odontology, with the students listed as co-authors, and a second currently under review for publication.
Jisong Ryu, a junior at Timberline High School, is interested in working in the environmental science and public policy field. Participating in the dragonfly research offered an opportunity to practice some of those research skills, and in the process, build friendships and fortitude in the face of challenging times.

“I think those efforts of understanding the problem more gives me hope and less worry about how things will be,” Ryu said.

The Charisma of Dragonflies
Insects are one of the first animals kids notice, drawn in by their seemingly alien features, said Dick Jordan, a retired science teacher who taught for 40 years at Timberline High School.

Jordan is also the founder of Life Outdoors, a nonprofit whose programs focus on connection with the outdoors and learning about conservation.

In 2021, a former student of Jordan’s, Ethan Tolman, reached out about helping Jordan survey dragonfly species in the Boise River watershed. Tolman, now a Ph.D. student at the City University of New York, wanted to look at the abundance of different dragonfly species along the Boise River.
Kristin Gnojewski, Boise Parks and Recreation’s community volunteer specialist, had trained community volunteers on dragonfly identification for a community monitoring program, and a volunteer read about the Finding Dragons program in the newspaper, asking if their group could participate. Soon, both students and community science volunteers were banding together to participate in the Finding Dragons program.

Tolman, Jordan, and Gnojewski said dragonflies make a great study subject for understanding the urban environment because they are easily recognizable and charismatic. They are not difficult to find in the Treasure Valley’s green spaces, Gnojewski said. Their aerial agility and iridescent colors make them fascinating to watch, Tolman said, noting that they appear in pop culture, like the flying machines, or ornithopters, in the Dune movies.

Dragonflies are also some of the most efficient predators, Tolman said. Known for intercepting prey rather than just chasing it, studies indicate they have a 90% success rate for snagging their target, he said.
The aquatic nymphs are eaten by fish species and other animals, while also doing their own hunting, Jordan said.

“They really are wonderful bioindicators of the health of a river,” Jordan said.

Dick Jordan, left, holds a blue dasher dragonfly as student volunteers look on. Student and adult volunteers collected blue dashers near the Parkcenter Pond in Boise in August for genome sequencing. Photo courtesy of Jisong Ryu

Time Traveling with Biological Clocks
When the DNA of a species is sequenced, it can be read as a sort of code to understand the evolutionary changes the species has undergone over time.

When Tolman approached Jordan about studying DNA sequences of dragonfly species, he likened it to a kind of time travel — a way to peer into the species’ history, Jordan said.
“When he mentioned time travel, it was just like the light came on,” Jordan said. “What an exciting way to get these kids to go back in time and think about how these species — which have been around a lot longer than us — dealt with climate change.”

In 2023, they investigated two lines of inquiry: analyzing the genomes of dragonflies that had already been sequenced, and sequencing the genome of a local species, the blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis).

To accomplish the latter, students and volunteers from Gnojewski’s program went to the Parkcenter Pond to catch blue dashers. The day lives on as a highlight of the program so far, with the students and city volunteers coming together to do fieldwork.

For Ella Driever, now a senior at Timberline High School, it was her first time doing field work, an exciting step for the aspiring wildlife biologist. The experience ‘sealed the deal’ on her interest in wildlife biology, she said. That day, she was also the first person to catch a blue dasher, a feat given their nimble flying capabilities.

“That was the first time I actually got to have a real creature that I was studying in my hands,” Driever said. “That was just magical.”
The specimens collected from near the pond were sent to Brigham Young University for sequencing, Jordan said.

Bringing it All Together
In August 2023, the Finding Dragons group hosted a two-day, intensive biodiversity workshop that invited everyone who participated in the project to hear presentations from Tolman and Jordan, as well as scientists from around the country about conservation research efforts.

Though the initial intent was to analyze and write the scientific manuscript about the blue dasher’s genome during the second day of the workshop, the sequencing was not yet completed. Instead, the group pivoted to analyzing the genomes of three species whose genome sequences were already available to the scientific community, seeing how they had responded to past climate change as a practice round for doing the same for the blue dasher, Tolman explained.

The group looked at the genomes of two damselflies, one from Europe and one from the western U.S., and a dragonfly from Europe. The students had the chance to do some of the computational analysis, Tolman said.

Ella Driever holds up a blue dasher dragonfly that she caught near the Parkcenter Pond as Augie Gabrielli looks on. Student and adult volunteers with the Finding Dragons project collected blue dashers near the Parkcenter Pond in Boise in August for genome sequencing. Photo courtesy of Ella Driever

The analysis revealed that none of those species appear susceptible to climate change. That is still a valuable finding as it helps scientists prioritize policy for species that are the most vulnerable, said Or Bruchim, a senior at Timberline High School that helped with the computational analysis.

“We have limited resources to alleviate the impacts of climate change,” Bruchim said. “The species that we need to protect, we should definitely allocate more resources according to how much they’re impacted. So we shouldn’t waste our resources on a species that’s not going to be too impacted by the effects of climate change.”

By the end of the day, through dividing up the different sections of manuscript, the group had a draft of about 80% of the research paper. The results were published in the International of Odonatology, with the students and city volunteers listed as co-authors.

When the blue dasher genome information came back, the students were tasked with assembling that as well, Tolman said. With the help of some additional analysis from Tolman and other scientists, they were able to write a manuscript looking at broader changes in the dragonfly order Odonata.

The manuscript is currently being reviewed by the journal Gigascience, with the students listed as authors.

Future Blue Dasher Inquiries, Future Connections
Tolman and Jordan anticipate that the information contained in the blue dasher genome can be used for an additional five or more years of scientific inquiries for students, and anyone who makes use of the publicly available data.

For example, how closely related is the Boise blue dasher to blue dashers that live elsewhere, and do they have traits that make them able to survive in cities?

Jordan says he also hopes to apply the research model to study mayflies in the McCall area, connecting with the fishing community there, he said.

The leaders and participants also highlighted the wide-ranging mental health benefits that come with scientific research efforts.

Driever said that she keeps a busy schedule with activities like playing varsity volleyball and working a part-time job.

“When I get to go do these fieldwork things, and I meet these people, I allow that nature that I’m protecting to ground me and keep myself from being burnt out,” she said.
Bruchim said his involvement shows him that others care about the same issues and are taking action toward solutions.

“It’s a really enlightening experience, and you’re able to make connections with people that share the same values and are passionate about the same things you are,” he said, “so it’s a big mental weight off, and it makes you feel more in control of the situation.”

Erin Banks Rusby covers Caldwell and Canyon County. She reports on local government, agriculture, the environment, and more. She can be reached at erusby@idahopress.com

Community Building through Education and Restoration

Community Building through Education and Restoration

Bldg_AmphibHabitatStrucBy Greg Fizzell, Tiffany Cooper, and Aly Bean

The education program at the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute (PCEI) gives local school groups and community members an opportunity to learn about the natural world while participating in community service. PCEI programs are unique in nature because of their ability to connect state-of-the-art watershed restoration projects with community education. Through a multitude of programs from pond and stream ecology to the Complete Kinder Series, PCEI serves over 1,500 K-university students, teachers, and citizens annually. (more…)