But in the last 30 years there’s been a shift. People became interested in dragonflies. O’Brien fingers the pens in his pockets and says he suspects it has something to do with birders who noticed dragonflies in the field and sought a new challenge. Whatever the reason, the shift has shed some light in a previously murky corner of science. “More people in the field means more guides, which means more people in the field,” says O’Brien.
And that, he says, bodes well for the Hines. O’Brien walks into the room where the dragonfly specimens are kept. Like all insects in the collection, the dragonflies are tucked away in airtight, glass-topped drawers that are stacked one atop the next inside rows of tall black lockers that reach nearly to the ceiling. Although there’s still a lot to learn about the Hines — O’Brien equates what we know about dragonflies today with the knowledge people had about birds in 1900 — he says there’s a lot we do know.
For one, life on the edge seems to be a way of life for the Hines emerald. Drought, for instance, can kill Hines emerald larvae, but odonatologists have found that all the best Hines emerald habitats dry out in mid to late summer, sometimes for weeks. Turns out droughts are a necessary evil for the Hines’s own survival because other species, small prey like deerflies and mosquito larvae, tend to fare worse. The Hines can benefit when they die — provided it can hang on long enough to outlive them.
Besides quantity, there’s no doubt water quality is a big issue for Hines survival. Larval habitats near roadways — notably, I-75, Mackinaw Trail and M-123 in Michigan, are at risk of contamination by salt, silt and other contaminated surface runoff. It’s been discovered that roadway mortality — simply flying into windshields — is a major killer of adult Hines emeralds, too. And as more roads are built each year, the Hines — and its wetland habitat — continues to be threatened.
Not good news, any of it, but the growing investigation into Hines ecology has helped put into place a recovery plan. The overriding priority is to protect and maintain the few known populations and their ground and water habitats — something that’s a lot easier to do when many people are involved.
O’Brien turns down an aisle that’s not much wider than the span of his shoulders and opens the door of a low locker. He slides out a shallow wood tray. Beneath the glass lid, encased in a transparent envelope the size of a cassette tape case, lies a Hines emerald. Behind the front envelope are dozens more, each one holding a Hines specimen and a record of who caught it, where and when. O’Brien pulls out one of the envelopes, and holds the Hines in a ray of sun streaming through a nearby window. Though dead, its bulging eyes and barrel-like thorax still glimmer a brilliant green, its wings look poised for flight. It’s at once a minutia and a mystery of the natural world, interconnected with the lifecycle of the crayfish, of wetlands and perhaps so much more. And its future rests on a small band of determined dragonfly-philes, armed with nets, Shop-Vac hoses and a singular quirky passion: that this obscure insect should be seen — somewhere besides in an envelope.
Lynda Twardorski is assistant editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]
Note: This article was first published in June 2006 and was updated for the web February 2008.