True North Living » Live » Wildlife & Conservation » Dragonflies Are “Canaries in the Coal Mine” for Biodiversity in Canada 
larry kaumeyer

Larry Kaumeyer

CEO, Ducks Unlimited Canada

James Paterson

James Paterson

Research Scientist, Ducks Unlimited Canada

Canada is home to 25 percent of the world’s remaining wetlands. Every organism that lives there, from ducks to dragonflies, has a role to play in keeping these critical environments healthy. Unfortunately, dragonfly populations are declining globally. What does this mean for Canada and what can we do before it’s too late? 

A few months ago, headlines were made when the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added 16 percent of the world’s 6,016 species of dragonflies to the Red List of Threatened Species. According to its assessment, populations of these iconic insects are declining worldwide, largely due to widespread loss of wetland habitats. Dr. Viola Clausnitzer, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Dragonfly Specialist Group, noted in the release of this report that “dragonflies are highly sensitive indicators of the state of freshwater ecosystems.”

Dragonflies are also a critical part of biodiversity, which is the variety of life on Earth. As aquatic larvae and adult dragonflies, they’re generally at the top of the insect food chain. They’re an important food source for predators like birds, fish, and frogs. “You can think of biodiversity as a web of connected species,” explains Ducks Unlimited Canada Research Scientist James Paterson. “As you take pieces out of that web, it weakens in strength and resilience.” 

An incredible 40 percent of all species globally depend on wetlands, and Canada has tremendous wetland diversity. This includes sprawling coastal sea marshes, potholes in the Prairies, and peatlands in the Boreal region. More research is needed to understand how these ecosystems may be impacted by the loss of native species of flora and fauna, which could help prioritize conservation efforts. Today’s dual crises of biodiversity loss and climate change are adding to the urgency around research and conservation action.

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Though most of us recognize that society and the natural world are inextricably intertwined, we have far too often let wetlands pay the price of land development. It’s a price we’ll pay back with interest. “It’s estimated that up to 70 percent of wetlands have been lost in southern parts of Canada, and up to 95 percent in densely populated areas,” says Larry Kaumeyer, CEO of Ducks Unlimited Canada. “But because Canada doesn’t have a comprehensive wetland inventory and monitoring system, figures are likely even higher. Without a solid understanding of what we’re losing and how fast, risks associated with climate change continue to soar.” 

Wetlands play a vital role in the health and well-being of Canadians. They’re critical to the management of water quality and to creating resilience against flooding and drought and are among the most effective ecosystems at sequestering carbon. The wetland that supports the vitality of the dragonfly and the wetland that protects against climate change are one and the same.

What befalls one bug, befalls us all 

Migratory species, including ducks and dragonflies, depend on habitat across a wide expanse of geography. This adds complexity to conservation efforts. That’s why Ducks Unlimited Canada has been working in partnership with Ducks Unlimited in the United States and Ducks Unlimited Mexico to protect North America’s wetlands for more than 80 years — and why it has now launched Project Dragonfly, a new campaign that tells the story of one iconic part of an interconnected system.

Paterson describes the life cycle of the familiar green darner, the dragonfly often seen darting over the surface of Canadian waters as it catches smaller insects or dips its tail into the water to lay eggs. The larva will live in the water for months or years, feasting on smaller invertebrates and tadpoles, before metamorphosing into their beautiful, winged form and migrating south. There, they interact with other ecosystems in other regions before eventually becoming dinner for other species.  

“They’re just absolutely incredible bugs,” says Kaumeyer. “We know habitat loss is at the heart of biodiversity decline, which makes it critical that all Canadians understand the long-term value and natural capital associated with wetlands.”

Every organism that lives in a wetland has a story as complex as the dragonfly, and each represents a strand in that greater web of biodiversity. It’s this fundamental truth that drives Ducks Unlimited Canada’s mission to conserve wetlands not only for ducks but for all wildlife and people. The dragonfly population is a bellwether for biodiversity. Both are intimately connected to the health of the wetlands as a whole. As are we. 

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