It is known as the globe skimmer or wandering glider, but no one ever knew just how far this remarkable dragonfly could actually travel. Now a British naturalist living in the Maldives has claimed that Pantala flavescens may hold the record for the longest migration of any insect. If it is confirmed, his theory would mean that this dragonfly, which measures no more than 5cm, migrates from southern India to Africa and then back.
"It's an amazing story," said the naturalist, Charles Anderson, speaking by telephone from his home in Male, capital of the Maldives. "But what is beautiful is that the pieces of the puzzle fit together."
Mr Anderson first started thinking about the dragonflies after he arrived in the Maldives in 1983. Every year in October, millions of the creatures arrive in swarms, a phenomenon that is well known to local people and which they say heralds the beginning of the north-east monsoon.
What the naturalist found particularly strange was that the Maldives – a string of more than 1,200 coral atolls located off the south-west coast of India – possessed only a tiny amount of fresh water on its surface. Fresh water, rather than salt, is essential for the breeding and life-cycle of dragonflies. Intrigued by the appearance of these creatures, he began collecting data and maintaining records about the dragonflies' arrival and departure.
He discovered that the dragonflies in the Maldives arrived somewhat after similar swarms of the insects appeared in southern India. On the more southerly atolls of the Maldives, they appeared later still. The numbers peaked in November and December.
Mr Anderson believes the dragonflies are heading to southern and east Africa, slowly making their way eastwards on the tradewinds. In the northern Seychelles, around 1,700 miles from India, the dragonflies appear in November. In Uganda they appear twice a year – in March and April and again in September, while in Mozambique and Tanzania they arrive in December.
Mr Anderson, who has published his findings in the Journal of Tropical Ecology, believes the creatures are making the most of the weather system of the so-called Intertropical Convergence Zone, that moves southwards by way of the Maldives every year. It follows those winds at a height of more than 3,000 feet. "Circumstantial evidence suggests that the dragonflies fly with north-easterly tail winds, within and behind the ITCZ," he writes.
The naturalist said he had also collated circumstantial evidence to suggest the dragonflies returned to the Maldives in the spring, en route back to Africa. In all, the journey would total around 12,000 miles and would involve the dragonflies passing through four generations.
Mr Anderson said not only did the dragonflies' journey make use of rain-providing weather systems that would create temporary pools of fresh water for the larvae to grow, but that the life-cycle of the insect had been modified to allow it to make this journey. Whereas the life-cycle of most dragonflies involves a larval stage in which it lives underwater for up to a year, the globe skimmer is able to climb out of the water and metamophosise within just six weeks. "These guys take a different approach to the typical dragonfly," he said.
As they make their way eastwards to Africa, the dragonflies attract company. Mr Anderson says that many medium-sized migratory birds including falcons, cuckoos and nightjars, make a similar journey as they head for their wintering grounds. He said that these birds probably flew at about the same altitude as the dragonflies, made use of the same winds and ate the insects as they went. The significance of the birds' journey had not previously been noticed, he said.
While remarkable, the journey postulated by Mr Anderson is not without precedent in the insect world. For years, there was a mystery about monarch butterflies, which are found in large numbers in the north-east of the US and southern Canada during the summer. It was not until 1975 that scientists were able to confirm that – unable to over-winter in a northern climate – the butterflies migrated south to Mexico. Again, this remarkable journey of up to 4,500 miles takes place over four generations of the insect.
Professor Karen Oberhauser, a monarch butterfly specialist at the University of Minnesota, said that when the monarch's journey was confirmed, people were astounded. "It was beyond comprehension that they could do it," she said.
While she said she had not yet studied Mr Anderson's theory in detail, she was ready to keep an open mind. "Animals and plants do amazing things," she added. "This is another example of wonderful things they can do to evolve to make their way in the world."
Great migrations: Birds and butterflies
*The odyssey of the globe skimmer will take an honoured place in the annals of epic migratory journeys. It is already clear that dragonflies are capable of travelling enormous distances, for in September 1988, the green darner, an American dragonfly of the hawker family, succeeded in crossing the Atlantic.
In fact, several green darners were found in the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall, in the aftermath of hurricane conditions on the east coast of the US.
Britain is also the scene of major butterfly migrations for, each year, many thousands of painted ladies and clouded yellows migrate northwards to us from their breeding grounds in southern Europe and northern Africa. May this year witnessed what may have been the greatest painted lady migration ever recorded, with millions of the insects – perhaps between 10 and 20 million – pouring into Britain.
The longest aerial migrations, however, are still those of birds. The Arctic tern travels every winter from Britain to the Southern Ocean and sometimes even reaches Australia – a round trip of more than 22,000 miles.
The longest single non-stop journey is believed to be that of the bar-tailed godwit, pictured, a wading bird, which has been shown to fly 8,000 miles across the Pacific from Alaska to New Zealand in a continuous uninterrupted flight lasting eight days. When the godwits arrive and land on the coast near Christchurch, the Christchurch cathedral bells are rung.