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Researchers discover three new species of damselflies in the Western Ghats

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19 Oct 2020
Researchers discover three new species of damselflies in the Western Ghats

(a) Shola reedtail (Protosticta sholai) [Image credits: K. A. Subramanian]; (b) blue-legged reedtail (Protosticta cyanofemora) [Image credits: Shantanu Joshi]; (c) Myristica reedtail (Protosticta myristicaensis) [Image credits: Shantanu Joshi]

The rugged and undulating terrain of the Western Ghats teems with life. Its numerous water bodies — streams, lakes and rivers — are a treasure trove of undiscovered species for scientists. Studies suggest that insects constitute more than half of the currently described species globally. A recent discovery of three new species of damselfly found near water bodies across the Western Ghats adds to the list.

The discovery by researchers from National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, and Zoological Survey of India, Chennai, has pushed the number of species of the genus Protosticta known found in the Western Ghats from nine to twelve. The newly-discovered species are blue-legged reedtail (Protosticta cyanofemora), Myristica reedtail (Protosticta myristicaensis), and Shola reedtail (Protosticta sholai). The study was partially supported by NCBS, the Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India, and the Rufford Small Grant. It was published in the journal Zootaxa.

“The idea for this research started when I was conducting some surveys in northern Karnataka,” says Shantanu Joshi, a researcher from NCBS. “I was at a Myristica swamp, a unique habitat endemic to the Western Ghats when I saw a remarkable damselfly. It was very small in size, flying among the roots of trees.”

On comparing them with the available descriptions of other damselflies, the researchers later realized that they had found a new species of damselfly belonging to the genus Protosticta. These small and slender damselflies that are often hard to notice and study.

In India, species of damselfly from the genus Protosticta have only been found in the Western Ghats and the Eastern Himalaya. “In recent decades, scientists worldwide have discovered certain hotspots or centres of endemism such as the Western Ghats, which offer an excellent opportunity for evolution of new species,” adds Shantanu.

The researchers went on to photograph and collect damselflies from other regions of the Western Ghats in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. To their surprise, they found two more undescribed species of the same genus among their collected samples. The blue-legged reedtail was spotted at the wet evergreen forests of Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala and Kalakkad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. The Shola reedtail was found in the Meghamalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, named after the Sholas (montane evergreen forests), the habitat of these species.

The three newly-discovered damselflies along with their place of discovery, and the researchers involved. [Credits: Shantanu Joshi, Dattaprasad Sawant]

“Due to the close similarity between species, they are tough to identify, and this is probably why we’re discovering many species now when we’re closely surveying different regions,” explains Shantanu. Discovering new species enables us to study their habits, define their geographical distribution, and understand their role in the ecosystem. “Such species discoveries bring us close to understanding communities of different organisms accurately,” he adds.

Insects such as damselflies and dragonflies are closely associated with freshwater habitats and are a great indicator of the health of these ecosystems. During the early stages of their lives, they are fully aquatic and depend on these water bodies. Since they are sensitive to the quality of water, one can find a higher diversity of these species in pristine, unpolluted water bodies. Their abundance can be used to assess the quality of different freshwater ecosystems.

“These discoveries add to the numerous dragonflies and damselflies known from this region,” say the researchers. “However, more research is needed to study relationships of Protosticta species from the Western Ghats with those found in the Himalaya and South East Asia,” they sign off.

This article has been run past the researchers, whose work is covered, to ensure accuracy.