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Dragonflies: climate canaries for river management

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article

  • A. Bush
  • G. Theischinger
  • D. Nipperess
  • E. Turak
  • Lesley Hughes
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>09/2012
<mark>Journal</mark>Diversity and Distributions
Issue number1
Number of pages12
Pages (from-to)86-97
Publication StatusPublished
<mark>Original language</mark>English



Freshwater ecosystems are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Where long‐term datasets are available, shifts in species phenology, species distributions and community structure consistent with a climate change signal have already been observed. Identifying trends across the wider landscape, to guide management in response to this threat, is limited by the resolution of sampling. Standard biomonitoring of macroinvertebrates for water‐quality purposes is currently not well suited to the detection of climate change effects, and there are risks that substantial changes will occur before a management response can be made. This study investigated whether dragonflies, frequently recommended as general indicators of ecological health, are also suitable as indicators of climate change.


Data were analysed from standard bio‐assessment monitoring at over 850 sites spanning a 9° latitudinal gradient in eastern Australia.

Using variation partitioning, we analysed the proportion of assemblage turnover in dragonflies and other macroinvertebrate assemblages that can be explained by climate and other environmental drivers. We also tested whether the utility of dragonflies as indicators improved at higher taxonomic resolution and whether the turnover of dragonfly assemblages was congruent with that of other groups.

Climate explained three times as much variation in turnover of dragonfly species than dragonfly and other macroinvertebrate assemblages at family level. The dissimilarity of dragonflies and varying turnover in each macroinvertebrate assemblage meant surrogacy amongst groups were low.

Main conclusions

On the basis of the influence of climate on turnover of macroinvertebrate assemblages, dragonfly species distribution appears highly sensitive to climatic factors, making this taxon a potential useful indicator of climate change responses. However, the low surrogacy amongst assemblages also suggests that a shift in the focus of conservation management from specific taxa to the functional composition of assemblages across a diverse range of habitats is needed.