The dragonfly delusion: Why it is essential to sample exuviae to avoid biased surveys

Eva M. Raebel, Thomas Merckx, Philip Riordan, David W. Macdonald, David J. Thompson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

117 Citations (Scopus)


Odonate populations and species numbers are declining globally. Successful conservation requires sound assessments of both odonate distributions and habitat requirements. Odonates have aquatic (larval) and terrestrial (adult) stages, but most surveys that are used to inform conservation managers are undertaken of the adult stage. This study investigates whether this bias towards adult records in odonate recording is misinterpreting the environmental quality of sites. The habitat focus is farmland ponds, a key feature of agricultural landscapes. We tested whether or not, adult, larval and exuvial surveys lead to similar conclusions on species richness and hence on pond quality. Results showed that pond surveys based upon larvae and exuviae are equally suitable for the reliable assessment of presence/absence of odonates, but that adult surveys are not interchangeable with surveys of larvae/exuviae. Larvae were also found at ponds with no emerging individuals due to changes in habitat quality, therefore presence of exuviae remains the only proof of life-cycle completion at a site. Ovipositing females were recorded at all ponds where exuviae were totally absent hence adult surveys over-estimate pond quality and low-quality ponds are functioning as ecological traps. Highly mobile and generalist species were recorded at more locations than other species. Adult surveys also bias recording towards genera, species and populations with non-territorial mate-location strategies. Odonate biodiversity monitoring would benefit from applying the best survey method (exuviae) to avoid wasting valuable financial resources while providing unbiased data, necessary to achieve conservation objectives.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)523-533
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Insect Conservation
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 8 Mar 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Conservation
  • Ecological traps
  • Exuviae
  • Odonata
  • Survey methods


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