It's not everyday someone goes out and discovers a new species of dragonfly in the United States. But it appears that Ohio's own Rick Nirschl has done just that. Rick is an extraordinary naturalist, and most recently entered the limelight for discovering, along with Rick Snider, the first U.S. record of the tropical Bare-throated Tiger-Heron.
Rick spends winters in the Lone Star State, and obviously he is productive when down there. His heron discovery was at Bentsen State Park, one of the Rio Grande Valley's iconic birding hotspots, and the dragonfly discovery reported here was also in Texas.
While exploring the expansive Big Thicket country of east of Houston in late March 2009, Rick stumbled upon the beauty pictured above. It is a spiketail in the genus Cordulegaster, which are large, striking dragonflies. Many people would have not pursued this, I suspect, writing the creature off as a Twin-spotted Spiketail, C. maculata, which it does resemble.
Not Rick. Noting a suite of characers that didn't fit any known species, he sent off photos to dragonfly authority Dennis Paulson, who is wrapping up his field guide to North American dragonflies. At the time Dennis and others decided that Twin-spotted Spiketails must exhibit some previously unnoted variation, and Rick's specimen was an example of this.
But the reality turns out to be much more interesting. Earlier this year, Gary Spicer and Troy Hibbits independently found and photographed the same critter in the same general region, and experts realized that something new was afoot. Others have since ventured into the Big Thicket in pursuit of this spiketail, and have found it. Greg Lasley has an excellent series of photos and a good summary of the story on his blog. Now the consensus is that Nirschl's spiketail is probably a species new to science.
I love tales like this one. Discovering something as big and showy as a spiketail dragonfly in a well-explored country such as the U.S. just shows that we hardly know everything. It also bears out that we need to catalog and inventory natural areas before allowing anything to happen to them. Sad is the number of plant and animal species that have been lost before anyone really had much of a chance to document them.
Major congratulations are in order for Rick Nirschl for being the first to notice and document the new spiketail. Who knows, maybe it'll be named Nirschl's Spiketail, Cordulegaster nirschlii.