Are You a Pokemon GO Fanatic? You’re Gonna Love This!

By Cecelia Hart, TPWD

I downloaded an app recently that is absolutely addicting. While you’re out and about, you can find a wide variety of creatures, and after capturing them with your phone, you learn their name, some information about them, and they’re added to a list of all the creatures you’ve found so far! I’ve gotten so hooked on adding to my collection that I find myself going out and about more often, always with my phone in hand.

I’m describing Pokémon GO, right? Nope. I’m talking about iNaturalist.

To be clear, I love Pokémon GO. I go out to play whenever I can, I’ve redesigned my main walking route to maximize the Pokéstops I visit, and I get wildly excited whenever I see a Pokémon I haven’t caught yet. I’ve been playing Pokémon games for the last 11 years, and I am captivated by the thrill of discovering new Pokémon and filling out the Pokédex. And I think it’s that same sense of discovery that has me hooked on iNaturalist.

In Pokémon GO, you find fantastic virtual creatures hidden all around you. But we are all surrounded by fantastic real creatures, too. In Pokémon, once you capture a Pokémon for the first time, it is automatically identified and added to the Pokédex, but I’ve never had a tool like that for real animals and plants. That’s where iNaturalist comes in.

The app, available for iOS and Android, lets you snap a picture of a plant or animal with your phone and upload it, and automatically adds where and when you saw it. There’s a community of naturalists on there that can help provide an ID, which is relayed to the app. But the app is just the tip of the iceberg.   The website is where the real powerhouse is, where you can peruse other observations, learn about identification skills, or read more about the critters you just observed. Any of iNaturalist’s 200,000 users can see your observation and try to provide an identification for it. Or if you already know about the plants or animals, you can even ID it yourself! Just know that it’s a bird? That’s good enough to attract the online birders to help you out! iNaturalist then keeps track of the number of different species you’ve observed that have been identified, just like the Pokédex. There are even leader boards and annual contests.

Though my Pokédex is complete once I’ve caught 150 Pokémon in Pokémon GO, I’m limited on iNaturalist only by what I can find. This summer, I’ve caught 60 Pokémon, but I’ve added more than 100 observations on iNaturalist. There have been 46,633 species observed on iNaturalist worldwide, and that number is still growing! I think that’s really exciting!

But I’ve left out one of the coolest parts. In Pokémon, you fill out the Pokédex at the request of a Pokémon professor to help them with their research. Well, iNaturalist helps real scientists! Once there’s a consensus for the species ID of your observation, it can be marked as “research grade,” meaning biologists and naturalists can use the data from your observation in studies looking at distribution and population health of a certain species!

If you like Pokemon GO, and you like nature, you will love iNaturalist. You’ll be amazed at the discoveries you can make and the real world critters you can find!

Edwards Aquifer Animals Food Not All Derived from Photosynthesis

The large springs of the Balcones Escarpment (Comal Springs in New Braunfels or San Marcos Springs, for example) are well known for their crystal clear water, but a visit to these special places provides little hint of the biological complexity farther underground.

San Marcos Springs is a popular tourist destination and critical habitat for federally endangerd species. The springs are fed by the Edwards Aquifer. Photo by Ben Hutchins

The springs are fed by the Edwards Aquifer: home to a globally significant assemblage of strange, and poorly known species, most of which occur nowhere else on Earth. Few people have ever seen eyeless salamanders with toothpick thin legs, blind catfish (one species with teeth and one without), and a suite of invertebrates including transparent snails, a blind leach, albino beetles, and dozens of species of shrimp-like crustaceans (including actual shrimp).

In the darkness below our feet, photosynthesis, which provides the fuel for most life on Earth, cannot occur, and no green thing grows. In the absence of photosynthesis, what sustains the Edwards Aquifer underground menagerie? In an article just published in Ecology, a multidisciplinary team of researchers from Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas State University – San Marcos, and the University of Tennessee – Knoxville provides some answers, and their findings go far beyond simply identifying what’s on the menu for obscure aquatic species.

In the late 1970’s, the world was thrilled when researchers using submersible vessels discovered deep-sea hydrothermal vents where bizarre tube worms, clams, shrimp, and a host of other species thrived in great numbers, just on the edge between the dark, freezing abyssal plain and the scalding, geothermal slurry pouring from deep within the Earth. The key to this ecosystem, was the sharp chemical gradient between those two, very different waters. The geothermal vent water is laden with chemicals such as methane and sulfide. Where these compounds come into contact with the oxygen-rich water of the deep ocean, chemical reactions occur, and these chemical reactions produce energy. Since the earliest days of life, microbes have been able to harness energy from these reactions just like plants harness energy from the sun to build organic compounds and fuel metabolic processes. In turn, those microbial communities can be consumed (or even co-opted as symbionts) by higher-level taxa. Voila! An ecosystem is born.

In the Edwards Aquifer of Central Texas, geologists and hydrologists have long known that not all water is created equal. Along the southern and eastern boundary of the aquifer, deliciously drinkable fresh water is rapidly replaced by anoxic, saline waters laden with some of the same chemical constituents found in hydrothermal vent waters (including sulfide and methane). Although not as hot, violent, or awe-inspiring as black smokers of the deep sea, this transition zone, referred to as the ‘bad water line’, supports microbial communities capable of the same, light-free carbon fixation (a process known as chemolithoautotrophy). Whether this process is important as a food source for the animals in the aquifer was one of the principal questions investigated in the new article.

Examples of ‘bad water’ (left) and freshwater (right), from two locations in the Edwards Aquifer on either side of the bad water line. Both samples were clear when collected, but the dark color of the ‘bad water’ is due to oxidation of sulfide: molecules in the water rust when exposed to air. Photo by Ben Hutchins.

Certainly, it is not the only potential food source. Along the northern and western boundary of the aquifer, surface streams loose water to the aquifer, helping to maintain spring flow, but also transporting organic matter from the surface, including plant material, algae, and even the occasional animal carcass. In many subterranean environments, this organic matter transported from the surface is the sole-energy source.  In the Edwards Aquifer however, the researchers noticed an unusual pattern: the number of species present in the aquifer was greatest near the bad water line, and decreased closer to those surface streams. If these aquatic species were dependent on that surface input, why weren’t they clustered around the source?

To help answer the question, the researchers employed a technique called stable isotope analysis. At the atomic level, organic matter produced from photosynthesis looks very different than food produced via chemolithoautotrophy. Furthermore, in the case of stable isotope analysis, the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ holds true, and whether an animal is eating plant material (or other animals that were once eating plant material) or chemolithoautotrophic microbes can be revealed through the distinct atomic signature that these different food sources leave behind in the tissues of consumers. When the researchers looked at animals and organic matter from throughout the aquifer, they found the telltale signature of microbial production, particularly in food webs near the bad water line. In animals near recharge features, the photosynthetic signature was more prevalent. The researchers concluded that both photosynthetic organic matter and microbial organic matter produced at the bad water line via chemolithoautotrophy were present in the aquifer and consumed by animals, but that the importance of each to a given animal varied depending on the animal’s location within the aquifer.

Examples of subterranean aquatic species from the Edwards Aquifer. All species shown are endemic to Texas. Copyright 2016 by the Ecological Society of America DOI: 10.1890/15-1129.1.

The presence of two distinct food resources in the aquifer has several important impacts on the groundwater community. Looking at the specific shapes of mouthparts for several crustacean species, the researchers found evidence that some animals behaved as filter feeders, using mouthparts with long, feather-like hairs to filter organic matter from the water (like a baleen whale), while other species were scraping organic matter off of conduit walls in the aquifer. Interestingly, the filter-feeders exhibited a stronger photosynthetic signal while the scrapers showed a stronger chemolithoautotrophic signal, perhaps because the filter feeders where utilizing organic matter from the surface that was being washed through the aquifer while the scrapers were utilizing microbes  growing on the walls of the aquifer. The researchers also found strong evidence of multiple food chain levels, with herbivores, predators, and predators of predators. The presence of high-level predators and animals using specialized feeding behaviors is unusual and largely unreported from underground habitats where most species are adapted to eat whatever they can find, whenever they can find it. Specialized feeding strategies are only expected where food supply is relatively constant.

Many of the species present in the aquifer, represent ancient lineages derived from marine ancestors that colonized millions of years ago. The long-term survival of those species can also be explained by chemolithoautotrophic microbes, although the researchers emphasize that such a scenario is only a hypothesis. Geologic, archeologic, and paleo-botanic evidence all point to multiple periods of extreme aridity in Texas’ past. During those times, plant production on the surface would decrease, as would the amount of surface water recharging the aquifer. Consequently, the input of plant material from the surface would also decrease. Microbial production in the aquifer, however, would continue, largely unaffected by surface aridity, allowing the deep parts of the aquifer to serve as a refuge for populations during the lean times.

This new research on the Edwards Aquifer food web has important implications not only for the conservation of Edwards Aquifer species, but also for our understanding of groundwater habitats around the world. The researchers note that chemolithoautotrophy may be much more important and more widespread than is currently understood. In the Edwards Aquifer, the presence of a dependable food source may help buffer species from natural and man-made changes to recharge and surface-derived food inputs. However, continued groundwater extraction and a growing interest in desalinization of groundwater from near the bad water line may have unpredictable impacts on microbial production. For over a century, the Edwards Aquifer has intrigued biologists, and there is no doubt that additional surprises will emerge as researchers continue to shed light on its dark secrets.

New Management Protocols for Texas Landowners to Support Native Pollinators

Interest in the conservation and perpetuation of native bees and other native insect pollinators has grown rapidly over the last few years. Several native insects that visit flowers, including some bumble bee species and the monarch butterfly, have experienced dramatic population declines and are in need of conservation action. In addition, significant challenges to managed European honey bee health has sparked interest in native insects as alternative pollinators for agricultural production.

As more than 95% of Texas lands are privately owned, effective native insect pollinator conservation will require private landowner engagement and involvement. Landowners can play a significant role in conserving and maintaining populations of native ins
ect pollinators by applying management practices that benefit these species. However, large-scale conservation is often cost-prohibitive without financial incentive. One such incentive, available to landowners who currently manage land qualified under the 1-D-1 Agricultural Tax Valuation, is Agricultural Tax Appraisal Based on Wildlife Management Use.
The Nongame and Rare Species Program at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has developed management guidelines for native insect pollinators landowners can use to develop wildlife management plan’s for their properties. These guidelines outline potential actions from prescribed burning, native plant re-seeding, installation of native pollinator plots, to creating nest sites; practices that could be applied to small or large acreages.

This new publication, Management Recommendations for Native Insect Pollinators in Texas, is now available online.

Landowners who apply these practices to their lands will be supporting populations of native pollinators that aid in maintaining healthy plant communities on their properties as well as those lands that surround them, which benefits a range of other wildlife. In addition, landowners will be conserving and perpetuating native pollinators that can provide pollination service to surrounding agricultural producers, potentially reducing the need for leased honey bee hives to pollinate some crops.

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Native solitary bee. Courtesy of Jessica Womack.

Why Pollinators and Pollination Matters
Pollination is one of the most vital processes sustaining natural ecosystems and agricultural production.  The majority of flowering plants that comprise Texas’ diverse ecosystems rely upon animals, mainly insects, to transport pollen among flowers to facilitate pollination and ensure the production of viable seed. Viable seed is critical for the perpetuation of plant species across the landscape. As with native flowering plants, many plants in agricultural production are reliant upon insects for pollination to set fruit and produce seed. The annual value of insect-pollinated crops to the U.S. economy is estimated at over $15 billion (The Economic Value of Ecological Services Provided by Insects).

Although the non-native European honeybee tends to garner the most public attention, there are actually several hundred bee species that are native to Texas.  These include bumble bees, carpenter bees, mason bee, leafcutter bees, longhorned bees, and many others. These native bee species were here long before the honeybee and are critical to the state’s diverse native plant communities as well as agricultural production.

Why Bees are Efficient and Effective Pollinators
Of all the insects that visit flowers in Texas, from beetles, butterflies, moths, and wasps, bees tend to be the most efficient and effective pollinators.  Two traits make bees preeminent pollinators.  First, they purposefully collect pollen to feed their offspring.  The act of foraging for this protein-rich food source results in the transfer of pollen from flower to flower.  During a single day, a female bee may visit several hundred flowers, depositing pollen all along the way.  Second, bees tend to be specific about the flowers they visit.  During a foraging trip, a female bee may only visit the flowers of a particular plant species.  The benefit of such foraging preferences is that the plants’ pollen is not deposited on the flowers of a different plant species and wasted.

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Leafcutter bee carrying a load of pollen. Courtesy of Eric Isley.

Native bee pollination is critical to the maintenance of Texas’ diverse ecosystems.
Many of the berries, nuts, and seeds consumed by birds, mammals, and other insects are the result of bee pollination of native woody and herbaceous plants.  Along with their substantial ecological contributions, native bees have proven to be more efficient and effective pollinators of several agricultural crops than honey bees.  Several crops, including blueberries, grapes, olives, peanuts, pumpkins, squash strawberries, and tomatoes are more effectively pollinated by native bees than the non-native honey bee. The added benefit to farmers from native bees is that their services are essentially free if adequate natural to semi-natural habitat is maintained around farm fields to support healthy populations of these pollinators.  The pollination service provided to U.S. agriculture by native bees has been estimated in excess of $3 billion annually.

For additional information, please contact Michael Warriner, Nongame and Rare Species Program Leader at

Houston Toad Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) recently submitted an application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for an Enhancement of Survival Permit in association with a Programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement (Agreement) for the federally endangered Houston toad (Anaxyrus houstonensis). The Agreement is still in draft form until it is reviewed by USFWS, posted to the Federal Register for a 60-day public commenting period, and all comments are addressed. The final draft will then be returned to TPWD officials for the final signature that will set the Agreement into action, opening a new door for landowners who wish to do good things to the land in Houston toad country.

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Houston toad calling. Photo by Paul Crump

Some of the very conservation measures provided by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that are intended to protect critical habitat for a federally listed threatened or endangered species can be interpreted by some as disincentives for maintaining or creating quality habitat for that species. Some landowners are skeptical about managing their land in ways that might benefit a listed species for fear that they might attract that species to their property or increase the number of individuals of that species on their property.

As the number of individuals of a listed species increases on a given property, the risk for accidentally harming one or several becomes greater. In other words, implementing management practices that benefit wildlife in potential habitat for a listed species can result in an unintended increase in liability under the ESA for landowners. As a result, many landowners hesitate to improve habitat for a listed species (or for any species) out of fear of increased liability under the ESA.

To alleviate this issue, Safe Harbor Agreements (SHA) and Habitat Conservation Plans (HCP) were developed to protect cooperating landowners from increased liability under the ESA as they implement practices that benefit a listed species.  In short, when a landowner agrees to do good things to their land to create a net benefit for a listed species, a SHA protects that landowner from any increased liability under the ESA that might result during or after those actions are carried.  Safe Harbor Agreements provide landowners with assurances that they will not be held liable for incidental take (accidentally harming/killing an endangered species) in turn for agreeing to improve habitat for the listed species.

The Houston toad is in dire need of a program like this. An SHA can provide the necessary incentives to encourage and enable landowners to improve and protect habitat to bring it back from the brink of extinction and actively contribute to its recovery. A Houston toad SHA will enable landowners to work directly with TPWD to enroll in the program and receive ongoing technical assistance throughout the lifetime of their Cooperative Agreement.

An additional benefit for both landowners and the Houston toad is that a larger number of cooperators can enroll in a shorter amount of time, increasing the net benefit received by the species over that time-frame. A range-wide environmental assessment has been completed by USFWS, which greatly reduces the length of time it takes to complete the enrollment process when compared to an individual SHA between USFWS and a private landowner.

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Houston toads. Photo by Paul Crump

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will serve as the permit holder, will enroll landowners by developing a Cooperative Agreement with them after completing a baseline habitat assessment, and will issue Certificates of Inclusion to landowners who enroll.  A baseline habitat assessment documents the conditions of the land at the time of enrollment which helps measure the response of the Houston toad to the management activities.

A landowner can also return their property to its original baseline habitat conditions without penalty, if they should so desire, at the end of their Cooperative Agreement period.  The Certificate of Inclusion will be issued once the enrollment process is complete, providing the landowner with coverage for incidental take throughout the term of their Cooperative Agreement.  This Programmatic SHA is a completely voluntary agreement between the landowner, TPWD, and USFWS, and the landowner can terminate the Agreement at any time.  However, if a landowner chooses to terminate their Agreement early, they will no longer be provided with the associated assurances.

A SHA is a boon for landowners – they can improve wildlife habitat on their property without fear of increased liability under the ESA, actively contribute to the recovery of an endangered species, receive ongoing technical guidance for free, and can rank higher for cost-share assistance for habitat improvement practices as a bonus for managing land for an endangered species.  And through their efforts, they will improve habitat for many other wildlife species, including white-tailed deer, turkey, songbirds and other species that will also benefit from a well-managed habitat.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone!  Now who’s ready to sign up?

The Depths We Go… to Study Bats

Bat Conservation International, TPWD Nongame and Rare Species Program, and Texas A&M University biologists and volunteers during bat surveys in the Texas Panhandle.

Texas bats are in danger. White-nose syndrome (WNS), a devastating fungal disease, is almost here. The disease is caused by a fungus that thrives in the cold environments where bats hibernate. Hibernating bats with WNS often display white fungus on their noses and other hairless parts of their bodies, including their wings.The fungus isn’t always visible to the naked eye, however, and usually is not seen on bats found flying or dead outside of their hibernacula or at their summer roosts.

White-nosed syndrome kills bats during hibernation by agitating their skin which causes them to wake up and preen. This expends their extremely limited energy reserves needed to sustain them for the entire winter and can eventually lead to starvation.

White-nosed syndrome was first discovered in New York in 2006 and has since spread westward towards Texas at a rate of about 200 miles a year. The disease is responsible for the deaths of nearly six million bats across North America. It is now just 170 miles from the Texas border in Arkansas and was just recently found in eastern Oklahoma. White-nosed syndrome does not affect humans.wns_map_20160216.jpg

Texas hosts 32 species of bats, more than any other U.S. state. Three species of Texas bats are known to be impacted by WNS and five others have been found with the fungus but exhibit no disease symptoms. The effects of WNS on the remaining 25 bat species in Texas are not known.

Many bats can live for 20 years or more and are very slow to reproduce. Stressors, such as introduced diseases like WNS, can result in significant population declines and push species towards regional extirpations or even extinction. The loss of bats due to WNS could have wide-ranging impacts to the ecosystem services provided by these night-flying, insectivorous mammals. From a human perspective, bats provide billions of dollars in pest control to agriculture annually through their insect feeding activities. Loss of bat populations would likely raise agricultural costs and increase pesticide applications.

Fortunately, the Mexican free-tailed bats, which roost in the millions in Bracken Bat Cave, Old Tunnel State Park, and the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, migrate instead of hibernate during the winter months. While this will likely shield them from the worst effects of the disease, Mexican free-tailed bats could still spread the fungus to more susceptible species across the western U.S.

Biologist examines a bat in a Texas Panhandle cave.

The Nongame and Rare Species Program at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is partnering with Bat Conservation International and Texas A&M University to monitor bat populations and the spread of WNS. In early February 2016, biologists from both groups, along with some dedicated volunteers, met in the Texas Panhandle (Childress County) to test bats in several caves for WNS. Caves in this region of Texas are thought to contain environmental conditions (cold, humid) conducive to WNS infection.

Biologists searched caves for bats and when found, counted and swabbed individuals to test for WNS infection. The biologists are currently looking for additional caves in northern Texas to sample for the disease. This work is being supported by a grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s White-nose Syndrome Grants to States and the Pittman-Roberson Grants Programs. For more information about this disease visit White-nose


Texas’ Rarest Dragonflies Tied to Rare Natural Community, Pitcher-Plant Bogs

Eastern Texas is home to two of what could arguably be among the rarest dragonflies in North America. The Texas emerald, Somatochlora margarita, is known from just nine Texas counties and three Louisiana parishes. Although it may be the most common dragonfly in areas where it occurs, it is rarely encountered because of its habit of flying and perching at tree-top level. The Texas emerald was petitioned for federal listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in 2011 and is pending a 12-month review by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rarer still, the sarracenia spiketail, Cordulagaster sarracenia, was only just described in 2011 and is currently known from five Texas counties and a single Louisiana parish. Although the range for the two species closely overlaps, observations of the sarracenia spiketail are patchier, partly due to its’ short flight season (15 Mar – 29 Apr) and its strong association with pitcher plant bogs: a rare natural community threatened by woody encroachment resulting from decades of fire suppression.

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A pitcher plant bog. Photo by John Abbott.

For both species, substantial data gaps pose challenges to evaluating the conservation status for these species, let alone implementing proactive conservation measures. However, with funding provided by sales of the Wildlife Diversity Program’s Conservation License Plates, Dr. John Abbott, Director of Museum Research and Collections at the University of Alabama, has started to fill in those gaps.

Dr. Abbott is no stranger to dragonfly research. Having literally written the book on Texas dragonflies…twice, he formally described the adult sarracenia spiketail and the Texas emerald nymph. All dragonfly nymphs are aquatic, so identification of the aquatic habitat in which nymphs reside is absolutely critical for conservation of the species. Despite Dr. Abbott’s expertise, no Texas emerald nymph had ever been seen in the wild: the nymph was described from an individual raised in the laboratory from an egg.

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The nymph of the Texas emerald, Somatochlora margarita. Photo by John Abbott.

Extensive surveys of streams and bogs in the vicinity of adults had repeatedly failed to produce nymphs. That changed, in the spring of 2015 when, using his knowledge of dragonfly biology, Abbott starting sampling more unusual habitats including crayfish burrows and sphagnum-covered stream banks fed by pitcher plant bogs. It was in this latter habitat, 1.5 feet inside deeply undercut stream banks, that two Texas emerald nymphs were finally located half a century after the adults were first described. This discovery sheds light on why the nymphs have been so elusive: they practically live underground in a restricted habitat. It also highlights that, like the sarracenia spiketail, long-term survival of the Texas emerald is closely tied to the persistence of pitcher plant bogs.

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Habitat of the Texas emerald, Somatochlora margarita, nymph. Photo by John Abbott.

Although the relationship between the sarracenia spiketail and pitcher plan bogs is known, because of the sensitive nature of those habitats and the dragonfly’s apparent rarity, biologists have expressed concern over population sizes for the species. Indeed, of the six locations where the species has been documented, only two of those sites have yielded more than a single sarracenia spiketail. So, Dr. Abbott set out to estimate population sizes at those two sites using established mark-recapture methods. The results were less than encouraging.

To put those results into perspective, consider an earlier mark-recapture study of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly: the only federally endangered dragonfly in the coterminous U.S. That study resulted in 331 captured and marked individuals, 88 of which were later recaptured. That resulted in an estimated population size of 1023 individuals at a single site: not exactly a booming population. Now consider Dr. Abbott’s efforts. At two sites surveyed, a combined total of only 20 individuals were captured and marked, four of which were later recaptured. Those numbers are so low as to prevent a statistical estimation of population size. Granted, those two studies aren’t directly comparable: Hine’s emerald has a longer flight season than the sarracenia spiketail, and the spiketail mark-recapture effort was hindered by cloudy weather, which reduces dragonfly activity and detectability. Nevertheless, the numbers still tell a concerning story about the rarity of this species.

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Sarracenia spiketail, Cordulagaster sarracenia, marked for population estimate study. Photo by John Abbott.

For both the Texas emerald and the sarracenia spiketail, the findings of the Conservation License Plate-funded research presented here demonstrate the importance and sensitivity of pitcher-plant bogs for Texas’ rarest dragonflies. However, the story is not without hope. Management practices that restore and maintain pitcher-plant bogs are well-established. Exclusion of feral hogs, periodic burns to mimic historic fire regimes, and, in some instances, mechanical control of woody encroaching species can restore pitcher-plant bogs, which not only provide habitat for dragonflies, but for a host of other rare plant and animal species. These management practices and their results can be seen first-hand in healthy bogs at Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area in Anderson County Texas.