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Local scientists abuzz with rediscovery of dragonfly species

Spiny Baskettail was spotted in the Donner Lake area for the first time in more than a century.
Tahoe Institute for Natural Science

In 1914, entomologist Clarence Hamilton Kennedy spotted a species of dragonfly, Spiny Baskettail, in the Donner Lake area.

The species, however, wouldn’t be seen again around Donner Lake for the next 107 years. That all changed in June when a team from the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science came upon Spiny Baskettail during its annual Odonate Blitz — a citizen science expedition into the Tahoe area in search of dragonflies and damselflies.

“Never, in the last three decades of intensive California dragonfly studies, has any species ‘returned from the dead,’” said Kathy Biggs, who has written regional field guides on dragonflies and keeps careful track of Odonate records in California, in a news release.



The species is relatively common across forested Canada and parts of the northern U.S., according to researchers, but in California, it is only known to be found at four sites. After considerable effort over the decades to find Spiny Baskettail in the Donner Lake area, the accepted belief among enthusiasts and biologists was that the population was long gone, possibly a victim of heavy recreation use at the lake.

“There’s not a whole lot of decent habitat right there as far as for dragonflies,” said Tahoe Institute for Natural Science Executive Director Will Richardson on current conditions at Donner Lake.



Typically, Tahoe Institute for Natural Science hosts its Odonate Blitz later in the year, but with COVID-19 forcing some of its other early season events to be canceled, the team moved the date up to June and chose the Donner Lake area, specifically with Spiny Baskettails in mind.

As a hot day wore on and the team’s hopes of rediscovering the species began to fade, a single dragonfly was spotted on the surface of Donner Pond.

“We knew it was a crazy long shot,” said Richardson. “I didn’t ever expect to set eyes on that thing here, and then there it was. We found one.”

‘OPEN MIND AND OPEN EYES’

The dragonfly, which was mired in a slick of congealed pollen, was later fished out by the team with a long stick for examination, and was confirmed to be a female Spiny Baskettail, the first one spotted south of Lassen County in more than a century. Richardson said the specimen that was caught will head to the California Academy of Sciences.

“Normally we don’t collect specimens, but this thing was done,” he said. “She’d already dropped her eggs, and she was in the throes of her last hours.”

Richardson said he returned to the area eight days later and was able to spot another Spiny Baskettail, adding that he believes the species has remained in the area undetected this entire time.

“They’ve been hiding under our noses, but it’s a slightly esoteric endeavor looking at dragonflies,” said Richardson.

Locally, Richardson said there are between 50 to 60 species of dragonfly. Spiny Baskettails are identified by markings on their forehead and the structure at the end of their abdomens. He said plans are to return to the area next May in hopes of catching the dragonflies’ emergence, which involves thousands of the insects taking flight from the water as they reach their adult stage.

Richardson said the dragonfly species isn’t the only recent rediscovery made in the region. In 2019, a species of orchid that hasn’t been seen in Tahoe since 1944 was rediscovered at Emerald Bay and at Glenbrook.

“There’s plenty of discoveries to be made here if you’ve got an open mind and open eyes,” said Richardson. “You don’t have to be an expert. Come on out, get involved, and who knows, you might make that next big discovery or rediscovery.”

The Tahoe Institute for Natural Science hosts several citizen science events throughout the year, including annual butterfly counts, the midwinter Bald Eagle count, and the Christmas bird count, as well as guided hikes and other nature programs. To learn more about Tahoe Institute for Natural Science’s mission and to see the full calendar of events, visit TINSweb.org.

Justin Scacco is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. He can be reached at jscacco@sierrasun.com


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