By Naser Al Wasmi
ABU DHABI // A rare species of dragonfly found in the UAE’s Hajjar Mountains and a small type of gecko living on Yemeni islands may have the Mohammed bin Zayed Wildlife Fund to thank for their survival.
Research projects on the two creatures are among more than 1,000 around the world that have been supported by the fund since its establishment in 2009.
In that time it has provided more than US$11 million (Dh40.4m) to conservation projects, with grants of between $2,000 and $25,000.
One of the most recent recipients is Dr Raquel Vasconcelos, a researcher at the University of Porto in Portugal, who wants to find out why the Dragon Blood Tree gecko is slowly vanishing on the four islands of Socotra.
“One of the major problems in Arabia that is threatening biodiversity is climate change,” Dr Vasconcelos said.
“If I include climate in my models to predict where the species will be, I’ll be helping to design better protected areas so they’ll survive.”
Dr Vasconcelos intends to assess the genetic diversity of the lizards to understand how they have evolved within the islands’ boundaries.
The gecko lives in and around the Dragon Blood Tree, the sap of which is used to stain violins. The sap’s use was recorded in the days of the Roman Empire.
Researchers know the gecko did not choose the tree for its sap. Dr Vasconcelos and her team are trying to find out the real reason, and an explanation for the lizard’s diminishing numbers.
“The curiosity is that there is a protected area in Socotra specially for the Dragon Blood Trees,” she said. “However, the lizard is nowhere to be found in that protected area.”
The team has measured the trees, taken samples to test their age and gathered other data.
But they did find another species of gecko in the Dragon Blood Trees, which may provide an answer.
“We don’t know if its competition or not,” said Dr Vasconcelos, who is in Barcelona. “We need more data.”
She has also received grants from the Spanish government and Fundacao para a Ciencia e a Tecnologia, and is using the Mohammed bin Zayed Wildlife Fund grant to research the gecko’s diet, ecology and habitat.
“There is much still to find out and hopefully, with more funds, we can conduct more visits,” Dr Vasconcelos said.
Another project financed by the fund aided in the discovery of Urothemis thomasi, a dragonfly species new to the country, .
Dr Jacky Judas, a research manager at Wadi Wurayah National Park, was on a trip last year that was partially supported by a grant from the fund.
“One of my research assistants found it and brought it to me,” Dr Judas said. “So when I took it home I tried to see what we had, but it didn’t match with the other species.”
He sent pictures of the insect to a friend in France, a specialist in animal identification.
“It didn’t match up either, so we had found a new species,” Dr Judas said. “The next step is to better understand the dragonfly so that we can better preserve it because it’s a rare species and we know very little about its ecology.”
With the grant, he and his team plan to conduct more surveys in the mountains to see where else the dragonfly can be found and to publish their findings this year.