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The scientific community around Lake Tahoe is buzzing after an amazing discovery by the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS). The non-profit organization was hosting a citizen science event in June in the Donner Lake area when participants discovered a Spiny Baskettail (Epitheca spinigera) dragonfly. The species was first discovered in the region over 100 years ago but had not been seen here since.

The species is relatively common across forested Canada and parts of the northern U.S., but in California, it is known from only four sites, three of which are close to the Oregon border.  Within California, the Spiny Baskettail was first spotted at Donner Lake in 1914 by Clarence Hamilton Kennedy. They were never again seen anywhere around Tahoe despite considerable effort to relocate them. The accepted wisdom among California dragonfly enthusiasts and biologists was that this population was long gone, perhaps a victim of heavy recreational use at Donner Lake.  

Kathy Biggs, who has written regional field guides on dragonflies and keeps careful track of odonate records in California, was thrilled by the rediscovery.  “Never, in the last three decades of intensive California dragonfly studies, has any species ‘returned from the dead.’”

On the day of the discovery, TINS was hosting its annual Odonate Blitz — an expedition into Tahoe habitats in search of dragonflies and damselflies.  This year Donner Lake was chosen, specifically with Spiny Baskettails in mind.  As the day was getting hotter and the team’s endurance was starting to fade, a lone dragonfly was spotted struggling on the surface of Donner Pond, mired in a slick of congealed pollen. The team was able to fish it out with a long stick and examine the insect closely, and much to everyone’s shock and amazement it was indeed a female Spiny Baskettail, the first one spotted south of Lassen county in 107 years. 

Still reeling from the discovery, TINS Executive Director Will Richardson returned to the site eight days later and found another female roosting in the pines nearby — encouraging evidence that there surely must be a breeding population somewhere in the area. TINS will be scouring the Donner, Teichert, and Coldstream ponds starting in mid-May next year to find out where.

“This a great example of how citizen science can make real discoveries and add valuable information to the scientific record,” says TINS Co-Founder and Executive Director, Will Richardson. “Everyone believed this species was extirpated from the region, myself included, but we tried for it anyway. Given all the previous attempts to relocate this population, it was nothing short of exhilarating when we proved ourselves wrong.”

According to Ashli Lewis, Environmental Scientist with California State Parks, citizen science efforts like TINS annual Odonates Blitz are important to provide a broader understanding of the resources on our lands.  “Our monitoring budgets are focused on certain species of conservation concern, but you never know what else is out there, so it’s so important that people are out there looking. Just because it hasn’t been seen in 100 years doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep looking.  Who knows, maybe we still have Sierra Nevada Red Foxes hiding under our noses like they did at Sonora Pass for 90 years.”

TINS hosts several citizen science events throughout the year, including annual butterfly counts, the Mid-winter Bald Eagle Count, and the Christmas Bird Count; as well as guided hikes and other nature programs. To learn more about TINS’ mission and to see the full calendar of events, visit TINSweb.org.

About the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science:

Founded in 2010, the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS) is a member-supported nonprofit organization providing world-class education and research. TINS provides programs for all ages, from presentations to citizen science projects to guided nature outings. Scholarships and a diversity of free programming aim to make these activities as inclusive as possible. The organization conducts ongoing biological research in the Tahoe-Sierra region, contributing important data to help improve management decisions regarding wildlife. TINS is working to bring a world-class interpretive nature center and educational facility to the Tahoe area, with the ultimate goal of creating a community that cares for the natural world by fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural resources at Lake Tahoe and beyond. For more information visit tinsweb.org.