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Sympetrum identification

I have seen a number of photos of Sympetrum (Odonata: Libellulidae) in the ID Request section, such as this one: which have been identified as S. rubicundulum or S. internum by people referencing the guide pages for those species. I checked out the guide pages, and found a number of images of these species, apparently identified by photograph alone. I am not an expert, but the literature I have found and people I have talked to indicate that these and several other species (S. janae, most S. obtrusum) are not identifiable without close examination of genital appendages under a microscope. Perhaps we could have some sort of a disclaimer on the guide pages (maybe there is one I missed?) explaining the difficulty of Sympetrum identification, or include a "Sympetrum rubicundulum complex" or "Kalosympetrum sp." page for specimens that cannot be assigned to species reliably.

Or, perhaps I am wrong about the whole issue, in which case I apologize.

As a side question, is there a resident Odonate expert on BugGuide?


In the Northeast, S. Internum, rubicundulum and obtrusum can not for the most part definitively be diffferentiated without clear macro images of the subgenital plates in females and hamules in males.
I say for the most part as there is in some regions a subjective standard for obtrusum where there is a “white enough” face and most of the time that will suffice. However, there exist some surprisingly white faced internum so in VT we have gotten away from that practice. Regionally as one moves West facial characteristics become more useful and differentiations are not quite so troublesome, but I can not speak knowledgeably about those regions.
Male obtrusum can be identifiable by a straight lateral view of the hamules if it is tack sharp.
For differentiating internum and rubicundulum males, a ventrodorsal view is necessary to show the subtle differences in the hamules.

OK, we finally made the species group pages
after the idea came up again concerning other difficult groups. Temporarily we separated the orange from the red, half remembering that there are more possible species in the orange group. We can merge these later if that makes more sense. Also some of the red ones seemed to be female and we didn't know if that limits the possibilities for them.

We think we pulled out only those with black legs, clear wings, and unstriped thorax, though we may have missed something if someone wants to recheck them.

We're not certain of the ranges of these species and therefore don't know if some of them can be identified simply because they were found in Maine, Quebec, Washington, or Alberta, for example. If someone knows the ranges clearly enough, those can be moved to species pages.

There probably are still more that can be moved from the genus page. We'll take another look later. Most of those otherwise left on the genus page may now be identifiable to western or striped or red-veined etc. if someone wants to tackle them.

Finally, if this seems like a good solution, we may need to go through the internum, rubicundulum, and obtrusum guide pages and remove those that have questionable IDs to these species group pages. But another day for that!

All this is from Nikula's field guide to Massachusetts dragonflies(1).

Nikula notes in the introduction that the southeast coastal plain is ecologically temperate while the interior is boreal. Thus some dragonflies are found only in one or the other. The Massachusetts coast marks the approximate northern limit of some dragonflies' range. (I think I have the northernmost record on bugguide of one species for that reason.)

Sympetrum rubicundulum: "Central to eastern U.S.; southeastern Canada. Common in coastal MA but apparently rare elsewhere. Confusion with Cherry-faced Meadowhawk (S. internum) makes delineation of range difficult."

Sympetrum internum: "Central to northern U.S.; southern to central Canada. Common throughout central and western MA, apparently rare in the southeast; however, the taxonomy of this complex is unclear, and distribution of the three forms uncertain." The note goes on to say that if S. janeae is a valid species S. internum is not found in Massachusetts.

Sympetrum obtrusum: "Central to northern U.S.; southern to central Canada. Apparently rather rare and local in interior MA, but status unclear due to confusion with other meadowhawks. Recorded historically from the southeast coastal plain, and apparently once much more common througout the state."

See also:, a list of observations by county in Massachusetts.

I suggest
that a link back to this forum topic be included on the Info pages of the two newly-created nodes, for the benefit of anyone who might visit those pages and not know the whole story.

See also...
I posted a request in the request for additional guide pages forum for a subgenus or other page for the rubicundulum/internum/obtrusum group.

A good point...
that needs attention. I would like to see detailed descriptive info added to the Identification section of the genus page and/or appropriate species pages, along with a statement or discussion of the ID issues you mentioned added to the Remarks and/or See Also section of those pages for future reference. A description of the known geographic ranges of these species would also help.

I think we should have this additional info in place as a baseline to work from (and for others to read) before we start moving images or making new pages. Otherwise, people might wonder what is happening/has happened - and why.

If it's just a matter of information gathering and distillation, I could do it, but I've got a few other projects on the go at the moment. Any volunteers?

A good point but not a new concept
I have made some attempt to do this for the gomphids:
and see here

Thanks for moving this thread here, Cliff
There are a number of people here who really know their dragonflies and it will be interesting to see their consensus on this question. There are a number of different ways we can handle this difficulty in the guide. The question is always, ehich makes the most sense to people?

So far, the consensus seems to be
...a lack of interest in the question.

The issues that Cliff raises above and here and here have not been dealt with. The Guide still has no descriptive text in the Identification section - and no treatment of issues involving ID of similar Sympetrum species in the See Also section - on the pages of Ruby, Cherry-faced, and White-faced Meadowhawk, and the genus page remains blank. Nothing has been added to these pages since 2004.

If Cliff became a BugGuide editor, I think something would get done.

I think you are correct
There seems to be very little interest in the 'science' of entomology, maybe 0.1% of the users are curious. The remaining 99.9% seem to treat BG as a medium for showing their photos. They don't seem really that interested in getting an ID, based on the number of bugs that are ID'd and left to others to move from ID Request to the appropriate species pages. I often feel it is not worth my effort to add any information, other than an ID.
Where does the 0.1% come from? 9920 users with perhaps 10 who are interested in the science - we know who we are!
I have to keep reminding myself that there is no rule that users have to do anything more than submit photos.

Some of the lack of movement of images
comes from people's hesitation to assume that they have photographed something worthy of the guide. We have often seen such comments on images, "Feel free to move this to the guide if you think it's valuable," etc. We have actually found that people are very interested and thankful to discover what species they have found and how the expert can identify it as that species. There are many contributors, of course, who just want to know if the thing they have photographed is dangerous, which speaks a lot about the huge lack of knowledge in the general public about our insect friends. (As a science teacher, I (John) sometimes get depressed, wondering what I have done with my life when I see what is printed in the press and what passes for science knowledge in the population at large!!)

But back to the point, I would suggest experts share what they know any chance they get. You never know when the next ten or twenty or sixty year old budding entomologist will be moved by what you write.

As far as Cliff becoming an editor, we would strongly support it! We're sure all he would need to do is write John VanDyk and ask and it would happen. He would still need suggestions from the Robins and Tonys on what to do with the Sympetrum pages. We would suggest closeups of the abdomen tips of male obtusum, rubicundulum, and internum from anyone who has specimens they can photograph, adding that info to the species guide pages along with information on white faces, etc, but still creating a rubicundulum complex page where Sympetrum images that can't be assigned to a species could be placed.

Sympetrum ID
Dunkle states that "male Cherry-faced and Ruby Meadowhawks essentially must be identified under a 20X microscope". I'm not sure a digital camera is going to pick up enough detail. A digital stereo microscope might be required.

How big are the features that need to be identified?

A 1:1 macro lens on a DSLR can resolve objects on the order of 10 microns. The image on the typical computer screen is more than 20 times life size.

Problem is, to shoot close to that size I need the end of the lens about 25cm away from the critter and I don't find dragonflies to be very friendly. Plus I wouldn't know what to aim at. End of abdomen?

You'd probably need to have them in your hand to get the angle. Males need the appendages on the 2nd segment (see this image and discussion). And even then it's questionable.

Females would need the underside of the 8th and 9th segments, see Tony's picture above. Dunkle describes some differences, although I haven't actually seen images of them to fully understand what they are.

Copying a comment from this photo

Damselflies and Dragonflies (Odonata) of Ontario: Resource Guide and Annotated List by P.M. Catling and V.R. Brownell (2000). (2/3 of the way down the page, 90 meg pdf)

It's on page 71 and I don't see much difference between any of them. I'd stick with the hamules and vulvar laminae. This might be the only group where the females look easier.

I'm still skeptical
With no disrespect to the Robins and Tonys, I am certain Cliff is capable of handling the Sympetrum and all the other Odonates by himself.
Specific problem in this case is that identification is best made from the hamuli of the males and the vulvar laminar of the females. Problem is that the 99.9% of the users would never know where to find these parts, and even if they did there is no way they could be used to identify a Sympetrum from a field photograph of a specimen. One woud have to photograph the beast in the field, catch it and examine the hamulus or ventral lamina with a hand lens. I guess my point is that if a specimen cannot be identified from a 'regular' field photograph then it's a waste ot time for an 'expert' to produce identification pages based on characters that are not immediately obvious.
Cliff, you would make a great editor. Minimal computer code required, just a few HTML codes such as url, i, b, etc that are explained somewhere in BG. However, once you are an editor you can get to look at how other editors do things and just copy the codes they use.

I see your point
When I first posted this thread, my intention was simply to make it very clear to the average user that, basically, his or her rubicundulum complex photo was probably not identifiable. I never imagined actually having all the necessary hamule and lamina photos on the site for people to make identifications in hand. I would assume that in most cases, someone with the gumption to net a Sympetrum and put a microscope up to its you-know-what probably has a dragonfly book with the necessary illustrations anyway. Also, as great as field guides and textbooks and websites are, there is no substitute for actual field experience with an expert, especially for things like Sympetrum identification. That said, however, it could not hurt to have those photos on the site. At the very least, users would have an idea what we were talking about when we mentioned "hamules" and "laminae." Whether or not it is a waste of time to go out collecting difficult images for a website is up to the individual, of course, but if we did manage to collect a full series of Sympetrum genitalia photos approaching the quality of your Aeshna and Gomphus series, I think it would be a real feather in our cap.

This 0.1%'er I absolutely agrees
A bank of multiple photos of the hamules and laminae would actually be helpful. Those photos paired with drawings in guides (Dunkle/Paulson/etc.) makes those of us who aren't near other experts more empowered to make stabs at these difficult species IDs.

I would love to be an editor and try to tackle the Sympetrum problem, but before I make a formal request, I want to ask you and the other editors how much specific knowledge of computer code and all that stuff I would need to change guide pages.

Don't worry
You don't need to know computer code at all. You just click Edit and type. Things like adding or moving guide pages are a little more complicated, but not that much.

As for working with the images- basically you'll be able to do the same things with other people's pages that you were able to do with your own

While it may be true
that editors don't need to know any computer code, knowing how to hide URLs in links could prevent situations like this where one long URL forces people to scroll back and forth to read the page.

Of course, a subsequent editor could fix the problem on an Info page, but I'd prefer having no problem to fix.

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