Thursday 23 May
Harlequin sprite (Pseudagrion newtoni)
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Harlequin sprite fact file
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Harlequin sprite description
The harlequin sprite can be identified by its exuberant mix of bright colours. This small damselfly has a blue-tipped abdomen, a distinctive black-and-yellow striped thorax, and a perpendicular black-bordered yellow stripe between the eyes (2).Top
Harlequin sprite biology
Virtually nothing is known of the harlequin sprite’s reproductive biology, life history patterns or feeding behaviour. Nevertheless, there are general biological characteristics of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonata) that are likely to apply. Odonata species start their life as aquatic larvae or nymphs, passing through a series of developmental stages or ‘stadia’ and undergoing several moults as they grow. This larval period can last anything between three months and ten years, depending upon the species. Before the final moult (emergence), metamorphosis occurs in which the larvae transform into the adult form. After emergence, adults undergo a pre-reproductive phase known as the maturation period, and this is when individuals normally develop their full adult colour. Odonata usually feed on flying insects and are generalised, opportunistic feeders, often congregating around abundant prey sources such as swarms of termites or near beehives (5). However, the harlequin sprite, being small, is thought likely to feed on small flying insects such as gnats (2).
There is often fierce competition between males for access to reproductive females, and females typically begin to lay eggs in water immediately after copulation, often guarded by their mate. However, females of some species can store live sperm in their body for a number of days (5).Top
Harlequin sprite range
Currently found at only one locality in South Africa (2). Originally known from Nqutu, KwaZulu-Natal, this species has not been recorded there since 1961, and was feared extinct until its remarkable rediscovery in 2001 in Mpumalanga (1) (3).Top
Harlequin sprite habitat
This rare damselfly inhabits long, fine grasses and reeds that line the margins of swift, clear upland rivers (4).Top
Harlequin sprite status
Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2006 (1).Top
Harlequin sprite threats
Invasive alien plants, particularly Australian acacia trees along water-courses, are by far the most important threat facing endemic South African dragonflies (Odonata) (6) (7). Black wattle (Acacia mearnsii), which has a dense canopy that blocks out the sunlight, has badly affected northern parts of the country where the harlequin sprite is found (6). An additional impact is habitat disturbance by domestic livestock, especially cattle, which use the alien trees for shade and trample and overgraze the natural vegetation in the process, as well as damaging stream banks as they visit the water’s edge (1) (6) (7).Top
Harlequin sprite conservation
Thanks to a massive national rehabilitation scheme (Working with Water Programme), which began in 1995 with the aim of eradicating invasive alien plants, threatened species have begun to recover in restored areas (3) (7). The initiative has proved a major conservation success story, with the highlight being the re-discovery of the harlequin sprite and two other presumed extinct dragonflies along river stretches where invasive alien trees had been removed and the natural vegetation re-established (3) (7). It has been recommended that portions of the riverbank where the harlequin sprite is found are fenced off to protect them from livestock, and relocation to a protected reserve is also a consideration (1). For the time being, the main threat to this rare, endemic damselfly has thankfully been lifted, bringing it back from the brink of extinction. The incredible success of eradicating invasive alien plants is a testament to the very real and valuable impact conservation work can have, and the importance of continuing such work in the ongoing battle against biodiversity loss around the world.Top
Find out more
For more information on the harlequin sprite see:
IUCN Red List:
For more information on the Working with Water Programme see:
Samways, M.J. & Taylor, S. (2004) Impacts of invasive alien plants on Red-Listed South African dragonflies (Odonata). South African Journal of Science, 100: 78 – 80. Available at:
Authenticated (12/07/2006) by Professor Michael Samways, Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology and Centre for Agricultural Biodiversity, Stellenbosch University.
- A species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
- An abrupt physical change from the larval to the adult form.
- IUCN Red List (June, 2006)
- Samways, M. (2006) Pers. comm.
- IUCN: "Return of the Natives" - lost dragonflies re-appear after removal of alien invasive trees (June, 2006)
- Inland Invertebrate Initiative: Database of Threatened Invertebrates of South Africa (June, 2006)
- O’Toole, C. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Insects and Their Allies. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Samways, M.J. and Taylor, S. (2004) Impacts of invasive alien plants on Red-Listed South African dragonflies (Odonata). South African Journal of Science, 100: 78 - 80. Available at:
- Samways, M.J., Taylor, S. and Tarboton, W. (2005) Extinction Reprieve Following Alien Removal. Conservation Biology, 19(4): 1329 - 1330.
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