We were threading on a narrow foot path, running across a rainforest leading to the Adam’s Peak mountain, the most sacred mountain in Sri Lanka and the fourth highest in the country. Our team of five naturalists was ascending the mountain slowly as we were frequently held by interesting animals, beautiful sceneries of forests, mountains and streams or by occasional heavy rains.
The Peak Wilderness Mountain range has always amazed me. The vast forest ranges covering the misty mountains reaching from about 300 meters above sea level to 2243 meters at Adam’s Peak, where a foot print believed to be of Lord Buddha is set. The folklore surrounding these mountains is full of mysteries. Mysterious places, people, other beings and phenomena are regular components of these stories. From a biological point of view this is also a mysterious and unexplored area, unknown to many.
It was in August of 2012 and in the middle of southwestern monsoon season. Our excursion started from the village Adavikanda and we followed the footpath used by pilgrims to reach Adam’s Peak. Many streams crossed the path regularly and these forest streams were a heaven for dragonflies and damselflies. From the beginning of the excursion I was documenting the species observed, as I had an interest in dragonflies and damselflies, though I was an amateur on the subject at the time.
On the second day of the excursion, few minutes after crossing a large stream with rapid currents by wading across it, with the help of a cable tied across it for support, we were stopped on our path, this time by birds, more accurately a mixed species flock. The Laughingthrushes, Babblers, Flycatchers, Bulbuls, Barbets, Drongos, White-eyes and Nuthatches were hopping, flying, chirping and babbling around us while two of my friends tried their best to get them photographed. Being a birder myself, I was already familiar with the species in the flock so I was paying attention to a butterfly flying around us.
It was then one of my colleagues, Muditha, called me to show me a damselfly. I was curious and went to see what it was. There, I saw a comparatively large brownish damselfly about five centimeters long and with an emerald tinge on thorax, hanging down from a bush with partially separated wings. I was excited and lost at the same time by its sight as I was looking at a species clearly alien to me. All I could say at the moment was that it is a Spreadwing damselfly based on the partially open wings. I was left with two options. Either this was a new species to science or a very rare species that was not properly known at the time.
My friends photographed it for me while I made a field sketch and noted down observations in my field notebook. That was the best I could do at the time and had to leave once it was done. We observed many more interesting things throughout the four days of the excursion. However, the mysterious damselfly and the excitement of finding something unusual never left my mind. After reaching home, the first thing I did was going through the books and looking for a possible identity for the mysterious Spreadwing. The search came out with one possible identity, Sinhalestes orientalis or the Sri Lanka Emerald Spreadwing, an species native only to Sri Lanka and only known from a specimen collected in 1850s, from a location about 40 kilometers far from the Peak Wilderness. It had been suggested that the species was already extinct!
However, I was not yet fully convinced about its identity. The damselfly we observed was a female and did not bear distinct features that was described for the species. It could still be something new and I had to find a male damselfly to confirm its identity. To find a male damselfly, there was only one thing to do.
We set out on another expedition to the Peak Wilderness mountains on October 2012. With three companions, I searched the potential habitats in hope of locating the species again. Two days of search were unsuccessful and on the third day we set out to return home empty handed. On our way back we passed a stream with a small pool along the path. We had searched the place the day before without success. Despite that, we thought to give it one last try. After a couple of minutes my colleague Kasun spotted the prize we were looking for, a large emerald coloured Spreadwing. It was indeed a male of the mysterious species and luckily it was within our reach so we could conduct careful detail observations and photograph it.
After the second excursion, it took me another round of literature review and comparison of field photograph with the photograph of a museum specimen provided by the expert odonatologist (a biologist studying dragonflies and damselflies or Odonata) Matjaz Bedjanič, to confirm that it was indeed the Sri Lanka Emerald Spreadwing which has been lost to the scientific world for 154 years. It was an exciting finding as it was a Critically Endangered damselfly thought to be extinct. For me it was my first major discovery focused on damselflies and a moment of success I always cherish.
During the years after the rediscovery, my colleagues and I have been working in Peak Wilderness Mountain Range, continuously studying the Emerald Spreadwing and other dragonflies and damselflies. Despite our opportunistic surveys in surrounding areas, the species has never been recorded outside the Peak Wilderness mountain range since its rediscovery. The Peak Wilderness Sanctuary, a protected area covering the forests of the mountain range, one of the few remaining montane forest areas in the country, should be conserved properly to ensure the survival of the enigmatic Sri Lanka Emerald Spreadwing and other species living in these cloud forests and I hope that our findings will help their conservation.
Author: Amila Prasanna Sumanapala
I am a biologist working on the dragonflies and damselflies of Sri Lanka. I look at their diversity, distribution, ecology and conservation and travel around the country studying them. I am also a hardcore birder and a conservationist working with several volunteer conservation oriented groups.