Surveying flying mini-beasts at Dublin Zoo

By Alison Hall

This summer, myself and a fellow classmate were fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to start embark on very exciting research projects. The subject of these projects – which I’ll admit may seem off-putting at first, but I promise with a short explanation you’ll be humming and nodding your head with interest – is insects. Flying insects to be exact. Flying insects in Dublin Zoo. See, this is where I know I’ve caught your attention.

Myself and my classmate, Mark Browne, are final year Zoology students studying in Trinity College Dublin and we are working with Dr. Jane Stout as our supervisor on this project. Jane put us into contact with Sandra Molloy, the research and conservation coordinator in Dublin Zoo. Together, we are investigating the species richness and abundance of flying insect species in different sites around the zoo. I myself am focused on comparing areas full of flowering plants to wooded areas, while Mark is comparing areas full of bamboo to the same wooded areas.

Red Admiral butterfly feeding on nectar at Dublin Zoo

The first question you may ask, is why on earth would anyone want to do that? And there is a very simple answer: for conservation. Dublin Zoo is involved in a whole range of conservation projects around the world concerned with animals such as snow leopards, orangutans, and also with our own native Irish wildlife. They have records of these vertebrates and the ones which they provide habitats for in the zoo. There are very few records, however, concerning the invertebrate species which live in the zoo. This is where we come in. While the National Biodiversity Data Centre does have some records of insects which have been spotted in Dublin Zoo, we hope that our findings will be a very helpful base for further data which may be collected in the future.

Pan traps used to capture flying insects

During the summer months, myself and Mark, all kitted out in Dublin Zoo high-vis vests, set up pan traps in nine different sites across the zoo. Two traps were set up per site to monitor the different insects which each area supported. These pan traps mostly caught very small flying insects such as gnats and midges. These tiny insects can be very difficult to identify in the field and for this reason were brought back to a lab on Trinity campus where we used microscopes to help us identify them. We also carried out passive transect walks through the sites and took note of all of the larger flying insects, such as bees and butterflies, which we observed in our path.

The combination of these two sampling methods gave us a better impression of what insects were living in these areas, and we had a lot of fun in the process! Most of our field work was done early in the morning before official opening hours. Let me just say there is nothing like being the only two people in the zoo and listening the wolves howling, the lions roaring, hearing all the animals in the zoo waking up.

One of the mini-beasts found in our traps

We were even recorded for the Dublin Zoo program which will air at some point in the future on the television. Although we felt a bit silly at times it was a fun experience that we were glad to be a part of. All in all, it has been an incredible summer and we have worked with such amazing people as we carried out this research. We hope that our findings prove helpful and useful in the future to others investigating the insects which inhabit not only Dublin Zoo, but the whole country. We are both very grateful to have been given the chance to work on these projects in such a prime location and we really enjoyed ourselves.


About the author: Alison Hall is a final year Zoology student at Trinity College Dublin.


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