One of the most well-traveled creatures on Earth is no bigger than the length of your thumb. The Pantala flavescens dragonfly, also known the globe skimmer and wandering glider, surpasses the monarch butterfly for the longest migratory flights in the insect class, Newsweek reports.
The findings were recently reported in the Journal PLOS One by a team led by Rutgers University biologist Jessica Ware. At less than 2 inches long, these dragonflies are too tiny to support GPS tracking devices. Instead, the researchers looked at the genes of Pantala flavescens samples from North America, South America, and Asia. What they found was that dragonflies as far apart as Texas and India have strikingly similar genetic profiles. This suggests they are all part of a global panmictic (or interbreeding) population, which is rare among animals, the researchers note.
In a worldwide species like P. flavescens, which can be found on every continent except for Antarctica, genetic similarities are often concentrated in geographic "neighborhoods" of individuals living close together. Wandering gliders are different in that they're flying across the globe to mate with one another. They're now estimated to migrate distances of 4400 miles or more, putting them way ahead of monarch butterflies, which held the previous insect migration record of 2500 miles. (The arctic tern holds the all-time record of 44,000 miles covered per year.)
To complete these epic journeys, the wandering gliders hitch a ride on the breeze when their wings need a break from flapping. Even though the trip is perilous for many individual dragonflies, it's good for the species overall because it allows them to find fresh water to mate and lay their eggs any time of year.