Move aside, monarch butterflies. There’s a new long-distance insect flyer in town: a tiny dragonfly a mere 4 centimeters in length that wings its way over oceans and continents. Commonly known as the “winged wanderer,” this species (Pantala flavescens, shown above) may make migrations of 14,000 to 18,000 kilometers as it searches for pools to lay its eggs. Monarchs, the previous record-holders for insects, fly about 8000 km in total on their annual journeys. (Arctic terns make the longest journey of all animals, flying some 40,000 km each year.) Scientists have suspected that the dragonflies are part of one single, global-spanning population. A new study out today in PLOS ONE confirms that hunch. The scientists analyzed the insects’ genetics using samples collected in North and South America and Asia. They found that P.flavescens dragonflies from areas as far apart as Texas and India have astonishingly similar genetic profiles. That means the insects must be traveling remarkable distances to breed with each other. They’re able to do so thanks to the larger surface area of their wings, which enables them to ride the prevailing winds, often at altitudes of more than 1000 km, while dining on aerial plankton and small insects. The researchers can’t plot the dragonflies’ travel routes yet because existing tracking devices are too large for the tiny animals.
*Correction, 2 March, 5:25 p.m.: This article has been corrected to reflect that P. flavescens dragonflies can travel at altitudes of more than 1000 meters, rather than 1000 kilometers.