A critique of the dragonfly delusion hypothesis: why sampling exuviae does not avoid bias


Jason T. Bried, Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, 195 New Karner Road, Albany, NY 12205-4605, USA. E-mail: jbried@albanypinebush.org


Abstract.  1. A recent study comparing adult and exuvial odonate richness concluded that adult surveys overestimate the number of species reproducing successfully. The authors called this phenomenon the “dragonfly delusion” and recommended that only exuviae be used for biomonitoring and habitat quality assessment. However, they drew this conclusion from limited surveys and detection-naïve analysis and failed to acknowledge that exuvial richness is typically biased low.

2. Here, we quantify the exuvial bias using two related metrics: (i) species detectability from concurrent adult and exuvial surveys and (ii) estimated exuvial species richness at a site based on imperfect detectability and the regional pool (cumulative total across study sites) of exuvial species observed.

3. Using concurrent adult and exuvial data from lakes in south-west France, we found that detectability was generally lower in 1-h exuvial searches than in 20-min adult searches and that exuvial surveys may lead to strong negative bias in richness estimation. This suggests the alleged delusion of adult surveys was exaggerated.

4. Controlling for species detection probability is crucial in making unbiased inferences on how many odonate species occupy a site and, by extension, comparing adult and exuvial species richness. Exuviae sampling avoids positive bias, not bias in general, and requires either relatively intensive search effort, statistical accounting of false species absences, or acceptance of negatively biased richness.