Address: River Garden Nature and Activity Center, Belihul Oya, Sri Lanka.

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Ancient Forest Damsels

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne discovers lineages from Gondwanaland


dragonFly

Prowl like a hunter, moving slowly,watching for movement. I am looking for an animal that carries the legacy of an ancient lineage – one which stretches back to India, breaking away from the ancient supercontinent of Gondwanaland, around 130 million years ago. Sri Lanka has a strong claim to be the best all-round wildlife destination. One reason for this rich biodiversity is the ancient lineages of animals that have evolved into endemic species. I’m seeking fearsome hunters. In the adult stage most of them are robust flyers, but I am looking for a family of them which are weak flyers. These are the enigmatic forest damselflies. Being weak flyers may be onecontributory factor to their limited distribution.

Unlike some of the other showy dragonflies that zip around in the open areas like dazzling jewels in the sunshine, the forest damsels prefer shaded forests and live around seeps or tiny little streams.

My family and I are in Belihul Oya, which is a perfect location for dragonfly waters with a mixture of aquatic habitats suiting different species. Leaving my family to be pampered with tea on the veranda, I make my way down a steep slope shrouded in riverine forest. A fast-flowing irrigation channel holds some endemic Shining Gossamerwings. The rising sun catches four outstretched wings and an iridescence which echoes that of the precious minerals these waters sweep downriver.

I dally a little, walking down the irrigation channel, stopping to admire a Blacktippedm Flashwing. Its body is a glistening green, the wings translucent, turning violet with iridescence. I want to glimpse into a world in the distant past and work my way around the forested slope looking for seeps. In 2010, Matjaž Bedjanic¢ described three new species, taking Sri Lanka’s tally of endemic forest damsels to 20. He informed me that more were in the process of being described. All Sri Lankan forest damselflies are endemic, and confined to the wet and intermediate zones in the southwestern as well as central parts of Sri Lanka. The island is classified as one of the global hotspots for forest damsels. One of the reasons for the remarkable variety of forest damsels here, in Sri Lanka, lies in its distant geological history.

The ancient forest damsels began to be separated at different times as Gondwanaland broke up over millions of years ago. The Indian plate (which holds Sri Lanka) collided into Asia and created the Himalayas. The ones in Africa crossed into Europe, through the North Atlantic Land Bridge, into the New World. They are still found in Central America and on the northern tip of South America, forming the Polyommatinae sub-family. They died out in Europe and Africa, leaving the sub-family Platystictidae ranging from Sri Lanka and India, to across South-East Asia to New Guinea, together with the Sinostictinae sub-family in China and Vietnam. The forest damselflies are small and incon spicuous, and I would have to be within a few feet of them to see them. So I step into a dark, moist streak of moistures which oozes off the slope like the oily excrescence off the temple of an elephant in musth. Hunters from ancient Gond-wanaland had died out in Africa and Europe, creating a distributional gap. If I travelled west from Sri Lanka, I would have to skip continents until I reach South America to find them.

Where are the ones in Belihul Oya? My thoughts drift to a chat over coffee and croissants in London with Dr Klaas- Douwe B. Dijkstra (he a leading authority on African dragonflies), who told me more about the forest damsels having a lineage stretching back to Gondwanaland. This led me to look up a PhD by his Dutch compatriot Dr Jan van Tol, which explains the evolutionary history of the forest damsels. A faint quiver of light glimmers off wings over the shaded seep. I edge closer and sit down on a cold and wet hummock. Weak wings flutter – but with a resolute of steel to combat an intruding male, or so it seems. The dance of the sunbeams does not suggest they are a mating pair. A forest damsel perches in its characteristic fashion at the edge of a leaf tip.

It’s fascinating that an entire family comprising 200-plus species of damselflies should do this. Its abdomen drooped, lending the endemic Drepanosticta lankanensis – its common name of Drooping Forest damsel. There is a stud of shiny blue on the abdomen. Perhaps its function is no different to the fashion in Europe of wearing shoulder pads and shoes that are studded with shiny metallic spikes. Perhaps it’s a signal. Finally fashion has converged with nature forged in Gondwanaland.

Phone:
+94 (0)710 66 22 36

Fax:
+94 (0) 45 22 80 223

+94 (0)710 66 22 36

Address:
River Garden Nature and Activity Center,
Belihul Oya,
Sri Lanka.

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