Professor: Dragonflies thrive at mine drainage cleanup sites

Regional News

A male black-winged dragonfly (Calopteryx maculata) rests on a grass leaf near the town of Klina on July 12, 2021. (Photo by Armend NIMANI / AFP) (Photo by ARMEND NIMANI/AFP via Getty Images)

LILLY, Pa. (AP) — With a swoosh of a net, a flick of the wrist and a little bit of luck, St. Francis University biology professor Lane Loya snagged another dragonfly from a reed during a recent trip into the field for his research.

For the past decade, he’s been studying wetlands in the region to track dragonflies and damselflies in the area.

One site just outside of Lilly Borough off Reservoir Road, containing acid mine drainage remediation ponds, has provided great results.

“When we study this site, we get tremendous diversity,” Loya said.

He believes that’s because the ponds, which clean up drainage from an abandoned clay mine, don’t have any fish, are surrounded by trees for shelter and provide a variety of microhabitats that “may provide a good match for more specialist odonate species.” “Odonate” refers to the scientific order that includes dragonflies and damselflies.

Loya usually visits the site a few times per semester, with several nets, identification book and sampling gear in tow, and brings students along to try their hand at catching the flying insects.

One recent day, he was able to snag several specimens in just a few hours, including a shadow darner, a Canada darner and an autumn meadowhawk – an insect that can resist cold temperatures much better than others.

“That’s just a puzzle of nature we haven’t figured out,” he said.

‘Swing and hope’

Loya also netted a male damselfly species that he said was never reported before in Cambria County – either a southern spreadwing or a sweetflag spreadwing. More research needs to be done to determine which one it was because the two are nearly identical.

Loya plans to return to the field to catch another male of the species, as well as a female, to help in identifying the insect.

“You sit and wait sometimes and close your eyes and swing and hope you get lucky,” he said.

The professor’s findings from the study he did with students at the Lilly AMD ponds were published in the 2014 article “Odonate Diversity at an Acid Mine Drainage Remediation Site in Cambria County, Pennsylvania.”

The research showed that AMD remediation sites can have a positive effect on biological diversity. While investigating this spot, the group documented 45 species – 11 of which were new to Cambria and 12 that had not been observed anywhere else in the county. Additionally, 10 of the species located there were listed as “of note” because they were reported as “less than secure” at that time.

One of those was the comet darner, which is one of the most imperiled species in the state and Loya’s favorite because of its size and its green and orange coloration. The only other place where that species was recorded in the county was at another AMD passive treatment site.

Growing species list

There are now nearly 100 known odonate species in the region. Cambria County has 74; Somerset, 80; Bedford, 70; and Blair, 46. Before Loya began his research, there were about 50 species recorded in Cambria.

Across Pennsylvania, there are roughly 180 types of dragonflies and 6,000 around the world, Loya said.

He said the insects located in ponds and lakes aren’t the same as the insects in streams and rivers.

Loya said the main difference between dragonflies and damselflies is the body shape. Dragonflies are usually larger, broader and have nearly 360-degree vision because of the large eyes that connect on their heads. They also spread their wings out when they are idle.

Damselflies are much smaller, fold their wings together when they are perched and have smaller, separated eyes on the sides of their heads.

‘A lot of samples’

Loya’s interest in the creatures began when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. A professor he had there, Dennis McNair, impacted Loya’s fascination with the species, and the two performed research together.

Loya pursued a career in ecology and zoology. The Bedford County native went on to get his master’s degree from Penn State. He started teaching biology courses at St. Francis 20 years ago and introduced the studies on damselflies and dragonflies 10 years later.

He has studied waterways across the region, including in Ashville and the Conemaugh River, Central City in Somerset County, and the stream on the Loretto campus where he and his students found a nymph of one of the rarest species in the state – a tiger spiketail. That discovery led one of his students, Kate Zeller, to study the waterway to understand the presence of the insect.

“We took a lot of samples,” she said. “I think I identified hundreds of macro-invertebrates.”

That work began in spring of 2019 and ended last year, with Zeller unable to determine, for now, if the presence of the tiger spiketail increases diversity in headwaters where it’s found, despite several diversity index calculations and significance tests.

‘Always learn something’

She has been performing research with Loya since she was a freshman and has enjoyed every part of it.

“He’s an amazing professor,” Zeller said. “He makes it so fun because he’s so passionate.”

She described Loya as a “super-helpful” and “very kind” person whose “thorough nature makes projects so much more exciting.”

“When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing,” she said, “but when I was brought on to the project, he was very helpful (and) very welcoming. He just wanted to make sure I knew every detail about the project and why we were doing it.”

The native of Cincinnati, Ohio, is taking the professor’s invertebrate zoology class this semester and will be visiting the Lilly site soon.

Loya said his favorite part of studying the waterways is passing the interest on to his students, just as his professor did for him. He also enjoys the continued education.

“I’m never disappointed because I always learn something when I’m out in the field,” Loya said.

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