Transcript for Charles Anderson discovers dragonflies that cross oceans
Actually, I come from Britain, but I've been living in Maldives for 26 years now. So, that's home really. The Maldives, as I'm sure you're aware, are a chain of islands off the southwest coast of India here. Capital, Malé, where I live. Actually, sitting here today in Mysore, we're closer to Malé than we are to Delhi, for example.
If you're in IT, India, obviously, is the place to be at the moment. But if you're a marine biologist, Maldives is not such a bad place to be. And it has been my home these years. For those of you who've been there, fantastic coral reefs, fantastic diving, fantastic snorkeling. I spend as much of my time as possible investigating the marine life. I study fish, also the bigger things, whales and dolphins.
This is a blue whale. We have blue whales in the waters around here, off Maldives, around the waters of India. You can see them off Kerala. And, in fact, we're very lucky in this region. One of the best places in the world to see blue whales is here in this region. In Sri Lanka, if you go down to the south coast of Sri Lanka, during the northeast monsoon season, you can see blue whales very, very easily. It's probably the best place in the world to see them.
Now, when I talk about the northeast monsoon season, I'm sure many of you here know exactly what I mean, but perhaps some of you are not quite so sure. I need to explain a little bit about monsoons. Now, monsoon, the root of the word "monsoon" comes from the word "season."
So, it's just a season. And there are two seasons in most of South Asia. And in the summer India heats up, gets very hot. Hot air rises, and air is drawn in off the sea to replace it. And the way it works is, it comes from the southwest. It comes off the ocean here and is drawn up towards India. So it comes from the southwest. It's a southwest monsoon. Picks up moisture as it crosses the ocean. That's what brings the monsoon rain. And then in the winter things cool down. High pressure builds over India. And the whole system goes into reverse.
So, the wind is now coming from the northeast out of India, across the Indian Ocean, this way towards Africa. Keep that in mind. Now, I'm a marine biologist, but I'm actually a bit of an old fashioned naturalist, I suppose. I'm interested in all sorts of things, almost everything that moves, including dragonflies. And I'm actually going to talk, this afternoon, about dragonflies. This is a very beautiful species, it's called the Oriental Scarlet.
And one thing you need to know about dragonflies, one important thing, is that they lay their eggs in fresh water. They need fresh water to breed. They lay the eggs into fresh water. Little larvae hatch out in fresh water. They feed on other little things. They feed on mosquito larvae. So, they're very important. They control mosquito larvae, among other things. And they grow and grow by stages. And they climb out of the water, burst out, as the adult which we see. And typically, there is a lot of variation, but if you have a dragonfly with, say, a one year life cycle, which is quite typical, the larva, living in the fresh water, lives for 10 or 11 months. And then the adult, which comes after, lives for one or two months. So it's essentially a freshwater animal. It really does need fresh water.
Now, the particular species of dragonfly I want to talk about is this one, because most dragonflies, like the one we've just seen, when the adult is there for its brief one or two months of life, it doesn't go very far. It can't travel very far. A few kilometers, maybe, is quite typical. They are very good fliers, but they don't go too far. But this guy is an exception. And this is called the Globe Skimmer, or Wandering Glider. And, as the name might suggest, it is found pretty much around the world. It lives throughout the tropics, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Australia, into the Pacific. And it wanders far and wide. We know that much about it. But it really hasn't been studied very much.
It's a rather mediocre looking dragonfly. If you're going to study dragonflies, you want to study those really bright beautiful ones, like that red one. Or the really rare ones, the endemic endangered ones. This is, it seems a bit dull you know. It's sort of dull-colored. And it's fairly common. And it occurs everywhere -- you know, why bother? But if you take that attitude, you're actually missing something rather special. Because this dragonfly has a rather amazing story to tell. And I feel very privileged to have stumbled across it living in the Maldives.
When I first went to the Maldives, dead keen on diving, spent as much of my time as I could in and under the water. Didn't notice any dragonflies; maybe they were there, maybe they weren't. Didn't notice them. But after some time, after some months, one day as I was going out and about, suddenly I noticed hundreds of dragonflies, hundreds of dragonflies. Something like this, these are all this species Globe Skimmer. I didn't know at the time, but I know now, they're Globe Skimmers, hundreds of them. And they were there for some time. And then they were gone.
And I didn't think anything more of it until the following year, when it happened again, and then the year after that, and then the year after that. And I was a bit slow, I didn't really take too much notice. But I asked some Maldivian friends and colleagues, and yes they come every year. And I asked people about them and yes, they knew, but they didn't know anything, where they came from, or anything. And again I didn't think too much of it. But slowly it began to dawn on me that something rather special was happening.
Because dragonflies need fresh water to breed. And the Maldives, and I'm sure some of you have been there -- so here is home. So, Maldives, beautiful place. (Laughter) It's built entirely of coral reefs. And on top of the coral reefs are sand banks. Average height, about that much above sea level. So, global warming, sea level rise, it's a real serious issue. But I'm not going to talk about that. Another important point of these sand banks is that when it rains, the rainwater soaks down into the soil. So, it's gone. So, it stays under the soil. The trees can put their roots into it. Humans can dig holes and make a well.
But dragonflies -- a bit tricky. There is no surface fresh water. There are no ponds, streams, rivers, lakes, nothing like that. So, why is it that every year millions of dragonflies, millions, millions of dragonflies turn up? I got a little bit curious. In fact I'll stop here, because I want to ask, and there is a lot of people who, from India of course, people who grew up spending your childhood here. Those of you who are Indian or spent your childhood here, let me have a show of hands, who of you -- not yet, not yet! You're too keen. You're too keen. No. Hang on. Hang on. Wait for the go. I'll say go.
Those of you who grew up in India, do you remember in your childhood, dragonflies, swarms of dragonflies? Maybe at school, maybe tying little bits of string onto them? Maybe pulling bits off? I'm not asking about that. You've only got to say, do you remember seeing lots of dragonflies. Any hands? Any hands? Yes. Thank you. Thank you. It's a widespread phenomenon throughout South Asia, including the Maldives. And I got a bit curious about it.
In the Maldives -- now, in India there is plenty of water, so, dragonflies, yeah, of course. Why not? But in Maldives, no fresh water. So, what on Earth is going on? And the first thing I did was started recording when they turned up in the Maldives. And there is the answer, 21st of October. Not every year, that's the average date. So, I've been writing it down for 15 years now. You'd think they're coming from India. It's the closest place. But in October, remember, we're still in southwest monsoon, Maldives is still in the southwest monsoon. But wind is, invariably, every time, is from the west. It's going towards India, not from India. So, are these things, how are these things getting here? Are they coming from India against the wind? Seemed a bit unlikely.
So, next thing I did is I got on the phone. Maldives is a long archipelago. It stretches about 500 miles, of course it's India here. I got on the phone and emailed to friends and colleagues. When do you see the dragonflies appear? And pretty soon, a picture started emerging. In Bangalore, a colleague there sent me information for three years, average, 24th of September, so late September. Down in Trivandrum, a bit later. Far north of Maldives, a bit later. Then Malé, then further south. And then the southernmost Maldives. It's pretty obvious, they're coming from India. But they are coming 400 miles across the ocean, against the wind. How on Earth are they doing that? I didn't know.
The next thing I did was I started counting dragonflies. I wanted to know about their seasonality, what time of year, this is when they first arrive, but how long are they around for? Does that give any clues? So, I started a very rigorous scientific process. I had a rigorous scientific transect. I got on my bicycle, and I cycled around the island of Malé. It's about five kilometers around, counting the dragonflies as I go, trying not to bump into people as I'm looking in the trees.
And they're here for a very short time, October, November, December. That's it. And then they tail off, there's a few, but that's it. October, November, December. That is not the northeast monsoon season. That's not the southwest season. That's the inter-monsoon, the time when the monsoon changes.
Now, what I said was, you get the southwest monsoon going one way, and then it changes and you get the northeast monsoon going the other way. And that sort of gives the impression you've got one air mass going up and down, up and down. It doesn't work like that. What happens, actually, is there is two air masses. And there is a front between them, and the front moves. So, if you've got India here, when the front is up above India you're into the southwest monsoon. Then the front moves into the northeast monsoon. And that front in the middle is not vertical, it's at an angle.
So, as it comes over towards Malé I'm standing in Malé underneath the front. I can be in the southwest monsoon. But the wind above is from the northeast monsoon. So, the dragonflies are actually coming from India on the northeast monsoon, but at an altitude at 1,000 to 2,000 meters up in the air. Incredible. These little insects, it's the same ones we see out here [in India], two inches long, five centimeters long, flying in their millions, 400 miles across the ocean, at 2,000 meters up. Quite incredible.
So, I was quite pleased with myself. I thought wow, I've tracked this one, I know how they come here. Then I scratched my head a bit, and that's okay, I know how they come here, but why do they come here? What are millions of dragonflies doing, flying out over the ocean every year to their apparent doom? It doesn't make sense. There is nothing for them in Maldives. What on Earth are they doing? Well, to cut a long story short, they're actually flying right across the ocean. They're making it all the way across to East Africa.
I know that because I have friends who work on fisheries' research vessels who have sent to me reports from boats out in the ocean. I know because we have reports from Seychelles, which fit in as well, down here. And I know because when you look at the rainfall, these particular insects, these Globe Skimmers breed in temporary rain water pools. Okay, they lay their eggs where the seasonal rains are, the monsoon rains. The larvae have to develop very quickly. They only take six weeks. Instead of 11 months, they're six weeks. They're up, and they're off.
Now, here we have, in case you can't read at the back, the top is rainfall for India. And we're starting in June. So this is the monsoon rain. By September, October, it's drying out. Nothing for these dragonflies. There is no more seasonal rain. They've got to go hunting for seasonal rain. And they fly south. As the monsoon withdraws to the south they come down through Karnataka, into Kerala. And then they run out of land. But they are incredibly good fliers. This particular species, it can fly for thousands of kilometers. And it just keeps going. And the wind, the northeast wind swooshes it around and carries it off across the ocean to Africa, where it's raining. And they are breeding in the rains of Africa. Now, this is southeast Africa. It makes it look like there are sort of two breeding periods here. It's slightly more complicated than that.
What's happening is they are breeding in the monsoon rains here. And the dragonflies you can see today outside here, on the campus, are the young of this generation. They hatched out in India. They're looking for somewhere to breed. If it rains here they'll breed. But most of them are going to carry on. And next stop, perhaps only four or five days away is going to be East Africa. The wind will swoosh them out across here. If they pass the Maldives they might go and have a look, nothing there, they'll carry on.
Here, here, Kenya, East Africa, they've actually just come out of a long drought. Just last week the rains broke. The short rains broke and it's raining there now. And the dragonflies are there. I have reports from my various contacts. The dragonflies are here now. They're breeding there. When those guys, they'll lay their eggs now. They'll hatch out in six weeks. By that time the seasonal rains have moved on. It's not there, it's down here. They'll fly down here. And the clever thing is the wind is always converging to where the rain is. The rain occurs, these are summer rains. This is a summer monsoon. The sun is overhead there. Summer rains in southern Africa. The sun is overhead, maximum heating, maximum evaporation, maximum clouds, maximum rainfall, maximum opportunities for reproduction.
Not only that, because you have this convection, you have this rising of the air where it's hot, air is drawn in. There's a convergence. So, wherever the rain is falling, the air is drawn towards it to replace the air that's rising. So, the little fellow that hatches out here, he gets up into the air, he is automatically carried to where the rain is falling. Lay their eggs, next generation, they come up, automatically carried to where the rain is falling. It's now back there. They come out, it's time to come back. So, in four generations, one, two, three, four and then back.
A complete circuit of the Indian Ocean. This is a circuit of about 16,000 kilometers. 16,000 kilometers, four generations, mind you, for a two inch long insect. It's quite incredible. Those of you from North America will be familiar with the Monarch butterfly. Which, up until now has had the longest known insect migration. It's only half the length of this one. And this crossing here, of the ocean, is the only truly regular transoceanic crossing of any insect. A quite incredible feat. And I only stumbled on this because I was living in Malé, in Maldives for long enough for it to percolate into my brain that something rather special was going on.
But dragonflies are not the only creatures that make the crossing. There is more to the story. I'm also interested in birds. And I'm familiar with this fellow. This is a rather special bird. It's a falcon. It's called the eastern red-footed falcon, obviously. But it's also called the Amur Falcon. And it's called the Amur Falcon because it breeds in Amurland. Which is an area along the Amur River, which is up here. It's the border, much of it is the border between China and Russia, up here in the far east.
So, Siberia, Manchuria. And that's where it breeds. And if you're a falcon it's quite a nice place to be in the summer. But it's a pretty miserable place to be in the winter. It's, well, you can imagine. So, as any sensible bird would do, he moves south. They move south. The whole population moves south. But then the being sensible stopped. So, now they don't stop here, or even down here. No, they turn across here. They have a little refueling stop in northeastern India. They come to the latitude of about Mumbai or Goa. And then they strike out across the ocean, down to Kenya. And down here, and they winter down here [in southern Africa]. Incredible. This is the most extraordinary migration of any bird of prey. A quite incredible migration.
And they are not the only one that makes the crossing. They have the most incredible journey, but several make the crossing from India to Africa. Includes this one, the hobby. This fellow is a very nice bird, this is the Pied cuckoo. Those of you from northern India will be familiar with this. It comes with the monsoons. This time of year they cross back to Africa. And this guy, the roller, a rather beautiful bird. It's known as the Eurasian Roller. In India it occurs in the northwest, so it's known as the Kashmir Roller. And these birds, what I've done is I've complied all the records, all the available records of these birds, put them together, and found out they migrate at exactly the same time as the dragonflies. They make use of exactly the same winds. They travel at exactly the same time with the same winds to make the crossing. I know they travel at the same altitude.
It's known about the Amur Falcon. This guy, unfortunately, one of these met an unfortunate end. He was flying off the coast of Goa, 21 years ago, 1988. October, 1988. An Indian Navy jet was flying off Goa, bang! In the middle of the night. Fortunately, a two engine jet got back to base, and they pulled the remains of one of these [Eurasian Rollers] out. Flying at night over the Indian Ocean 2,424 meters. Same height as the dragonflies go. So, they are using the same winds. And the other thing, the other important factor for all these birds, all medium sized fellows, and this includes the next slide as well, which is a bee-eater. Bee-eaters eat bees. This one has a nice blue cheek. It's a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater. And every one of these birds that makes the crossing from India to East Africa eats insects, large insects, the size of dragonflies. Thank you very much. (Applause)