Happy Birthday, Dolly

Leonora Katherine Doll Gloyd
August 29, 1902 – June 2, 1993

Dolly at the Rocky Mountain Biological Station in August 1929.

“When someone asks me to criticize a manuscript – especially if it deals with the Odonata – I should warn him beforehand that I usually do so to the best of my ability, and not to be offended because of suggested changes; neither should he feel obligated to accept them. After all, it is his baby and he is responsible for it. Also, I have no position of wealth, no magic power of Ph.D., and no prestige of a major professor or of the proverbial wearer of long pants.”

This is from a reply entomologist Leonora Katherine Doll Gloyd made to entomologist Rosser W. Garrison, responding to a letter he wrote to her in 1969 requesting she review his first scientific paper. It dealt with the female of Libellula gaigei, a rare and poorly known dragonfly from Mexico that is occasionally reported just across the US-Mexico border in Texas. Gloyd described the species in 1938 from two specimens collected in Yucatán prior to 1932. She was apt to have some opinions on the subject.

“Thus,” wrote Garrison, “my very first manuscript was severely marked up in the small elite typewriter script I was to become so familiar with.” He was not offended. It was the beginning of a two-decades-long professional correspondence around a deeply shared interest in Odonata. Like many of her friends, he called her Dolly. This account is one of several in Garrison’s wonderful and fact-filled tribute to her after she died in 1993, published in Argia (volume 5, number 4, 15 March 1994), a journal of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas.

When Garrison, in his early 20s, reached out to her for criticism, Gloyd was in her late 60s, a widely respected odonatologist, gifted taxonomist, museum curator, and a rare female in a world of long pants. She is perhaps most famous and best remembered as the leading expert of her era on Argia, a genus of New World damselflies called dancers for their agile, balletic flight habits.

Argia is the most speciose (rich in species) genus of Odonata in the Americas, and numerous odonatologists believe it to be the most speciose genus in the world. This will be borne out as more genomic studies are done to sort out the molecular relationships of Odonata. The number of Argia currently hovers around 137 species with several more undescribed. This number is anticipated to increase for at least a couple of reasons. First, there are underexplored areas in Latin America where odonate-chasers will discover new species. Second, taxonomists are reevaluating museum specimens of existing species as well as revisiting observations of prior skeptical Argia experts (foremost including Gloyd) and finding, for instance, several undescribed species that had received manuscript names but were never formally described.

In 1977, J. M. Van Brink and Bastiaan Kiauta, two of Gloyd’s colleagues, put together a tribute to her on the occasion of her 75th birthday (Odonatologica (1977) 6 (3):143-149). They wanted her to know “how much she is appreciated and loved by her fellow odonatologists around the world.” The article contains biographical information about her that makes me long for more. Leonora Katherine Doll was born on a farm near Larned, Kansas, on August 29, 1902 – one hundred and twenty years ago today. Her father was a wheat farmer and part-time school teacher. The family seems to have moved around a bit during Leonora’s early years but settled on a farm near Kirkville, Missouri, in 1909.

In 1924 she received a Bachelor of Science degree at what is now Kansas State University, and in the summer of that year took a field course in entomology at the Biological Station of the University of Michigan taught by Professor H. B. Hungerford, a specialist on aquatic insects. She collected some odonates during the course for her personal collection. In 1925 there were two milestones in Leonora’s life. She earned a Master of Science degree with a major in vertebrate embryology and minor in chemistry and she married a young herpetologist Howard K. Gloyd, also a Kansan. He would become a leading authority on snakes, especially poisonous ones. Leonora assisted him in his field work and research on copperheads, rattlesnakes, and the embryology of lizards.

When a woman of Leonora’s generation pursues a career in the natural sciences – especially in a field as esoteric and demanding as odonatology that requires the desire and stamina to tromp around outdoors, often in rugged or mucky places, and then to sit still for hours at time in a laboratory preparing and studying tiny specimens, the question arises: what sparked Leonora’s interest? As a child, she had ample opportunity to roam around outdoors, but then so did lots of other girls her age. In the tribute to her, the authors write that as a child she was charmed by “beautiful blue dragonflies (probably Enallagma) on the tall sunflowers.” That observation strikes me as odd – members of this genus, known as bluets, are shy denizens of thick vegetation around ponds, streams, and lakes. I can’t picture them on tall sunflowers. Maybe she was seeing one of the big, bold, blue-colored darners in the family Aeshnidae, like the Common Green Darner, Anax junius. It is an eye-popping dragonfly, the male with a brilliant turquoise blue abdomen. It is common, conspicuous, and highly migratory. I can picture one alighting on a tall sunflower on the plains of Kansas.

If indeed the anecdote is true and regardless of what blue dragonfly caught her eye, it fits a pattern. From my observations of peers who possess an intense interest in and deep knowledge of some aspect of the natural sciences there is a common theme. Something beckoned to them when they were young – a bird, an insect, a flower, a cloud, a snake – and they followed in pursuit. If, as a child, Leonora was blossoming as the curious and exacting odonatologist she became as an adult, I will hazard to guess she must have noticed and been captivated by the myriad jewel-like dragonflies and damselflies darting, gliding, zigzagging, hovering, and weaving through grasses, sedges, and scrubs or zooming over land and water in the rural Midwest. She responded to their call.

For decades Gloyd worked on a revision of the taxonomy of Argia, while raising two children and pursuing many other odonate responsibilities and research. Leonora inherited her obsession for – and commitment to – the dancers from early-20th-century odonatologist E. B. Williamson who hired her in 1929 to be his assistant to help catalogue and integrate his library and odonate collection he was giving to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. He was instrumental in guiding her to publish her own odonate work, a sign that the mentor recognized her superior talents. Williamson had set himself the goal of producing a monograph on Argia, but he died of a stroke in 1933 at the age of 55 before finishing this task. Gloyd carried on. Although she far outlived Williamson, a stroke when she was 86 was a knockback for her life’s work. She died, a few weeks shy of her 91st birthday, before she completed her opus on Argia.

In his tribute, Garrison noted that she had amassed the largest collection of Argia species ever assembled by one person, gathering specimens from nearly every museum and region in the New World. Even as a young scientist, Garrison already shared her interest in the genus and the puzzles it presents to taxonomists. Over the years he corresponded with her about Argia, often asking her to help track down obscure articles (she was a passionate bibliophile as well as odonate curator and researcher), and he made several trips to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to work with her on knotty aspects of the genus. On one of those trips, Dolly told him she estimated she had examined something like 250,000 specimens of Argia up to that time. This would help explain why the eye pieces of her binocular microscope were permanently scratched up by her glasses. While a species of Libellula was Garrison’s first introduction to Gloyd, it is Argia that sealed their comradeship.

It should come as no surprise that Garrison and his wife, Natalia von Ellenrieder, have taken on the mission left unfinished by Gloyd and her mentor E. B. Williamson – a task that’s been ongoing for well over a century. Garrison and von Ellenrieder, acknowledged by their peers as the leading living authorities on Argia, are in the years-long process of sorting out the genus. In a world that at times seems disproportionately fraught with sadness, inequities, unkindness, inanities, and peril, I find it course-correcting and joyful to know that scientists like Williamson, Gloyd, Garrison, and von Ellenrieder have been working quietly, carefully, and collaboratively to figure out what’s up with Argia, the beautiful dancers.

In a 1994 paper, the first of several articles covering the systematics of Argia, Garrison provided a synopsis and keys for the 29 species that occur in the United States and named three species of Argia that had been known among odonatologists for several years but not officially described. One of these he named Leonora’s Dancer, Argia leonorae. The species occurs in parts of Oklahoma, south-central and western Texas, and northern Mexico. Its biology and habits are poorly known. No surprise – these landscapes are sparsely populated by humans, let alone odonatologists.

Leonora’s Dancer, Argia leonorae, photographed by my husband, David F. Smith,
at the Uvalde (Texas) National Fish Hatchery, 7 July 2021.

Gloyd, however, did tromp around in the rugged wilds of Big Bend in the 1930s searching for and collecting odonates. Her husband, I assume searching also for snakes and lizards, collected a number of odonates on these trips. In 1958, she published an article, “The Dragonfly Fauna of the Big Bend Region of Trans-Pecos Texas,” that incorporates data about odonates collected by her, her husband, and others from 1916 into the 1950s. In it she meticulously describes key features (especially the reproductive apparatus) of several then-new species of Argia. In his article, Garrison cites her gift for careful analysis and use of terminology. I read his admiration for her between the lines. As a person who has great respect for the discipline of science but is not always bound by the necessity of objectivity that is required in scientific writing – and as a woman who has also tromped around in the vast and beautiful Big Bend region – I can picture her there and will think of Leonora’s Dancer as Dolly’s metaphoric reincarnation.

This is a photograph I took of May’s Dancer, Argia mayi, on 18 January 2022 around the splash pool of a waterfall near Pluma Hidalgo, Oaxaca, Mexico. It is an example of the influence Gloyd continues to have on the taxonomy of this genus. In 2012, Mexican odonatologist Enrique González-Soriano described it as a new species of Argia (Org Divers Evol (2012) 12:261-265). In the article he wrote, “The new species I describe here had been recognized a long time ago by the late Leonora K. Gloyd and later by myself.” A. mayi occurs in multiple areas across Mexico. It was previously thought to be a variant of Argia pocomana, a widespread damsel occurring from Guatemala to Peru. The key differences distinguishing mayi from pocomana lie in the subtle morphology of small structures involved in copulation – the male’s cerci and paraproct (appendages attached to the tip of the abdomen) and the female’s mesostigmal plate (located on the thorax right behind the head). These are precise key-and-lock reproductive structures that are often determinant factors for species-hood. González-Soriano named it for Michael L. May, an odonatologist and professor emeritus at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who studies many aspects of dragonflies and damselflies (migration, regulation of body temperature, taxonomy, and phylogeny).

Sitting still looking at the little bodies of dragonflies and damselflies for hours on end and keeping those bodies carefully arranged in museum storage cabinets – that’s harder for me to picture. But scattered in various documents there is sufficient proof of her propensity for these tasks. Garrison writes that she staunchly refused to adopt the more modern and space-saving method of storing specimens in cellophane envelopes. Instead, continuing the technique she learned from E. B. Williamson, she prepared triangular envelopes for specimens that she called “booties.” Over her career, she fashioned thousands of these – and color-coded them according to certain attributes of groups of specimens, as Garrison wrote, “blue might mean penis extruded, for example.”

In her regular crisply written and witty letters and notes to Selysia, a newsletter of the World Dragonfly Association published from 1963 to 1997, one finds further proof of her meticulous work habits. For instance in “A Note on Mending Specimens of Odonata” she wrote in 1975, “Now that there is a tendency to file specimens in envelopes like so many library cards, the percentage of breakage, according to my observations, is greater than ever before, and so is the possibility of a total loss of some important parts by crushing if the envelope is reinforced by a card, and the specimens not mended when broken. If you value your specimens it is important to keep them mended.”

Gloyd tried several adhesives in her efforts to glue broken parts back onto specimens. Household cement left a white residue. Elmer’s Glue was too slow to set up. Then she discovered a product called Gane’s No. 1, Casing-in-Paste that was just the ticket. In the note, she goes on to describe techniques using this paste to reattach an antenna, a broken part of an eye, a claw, a leg, abdominal appendages, and a head, or putting back together an entire abdomen. These are incredibly tiny anatomical pieces. Even reading this note, I cannot imagine the surgical skill necessary to reassemble a broken dragonfly or damselfly.

Fiery-eyed Dancer, Argia oenea, is one of the more easily identified species of the genus.
Photographed 8 October 2021 at the low-water crossing at Taymuco, Sonora, Mexico, by S. Winckler.

As a person who has been birdwatching for years, it is embarrassing to acknowledge my late-in-life arrival to an appreciation of odonates. My birdwatching husband, David, started observing and photographing odonates several years ago. I followed suit. Our already rich experiences shared together over the years out-of-doors are all the richer because of dragonflies and damselflies. Once attuned to them, and better late than never, I now see them – in proper season and requisite habitat – everywhere. They are stunningly beautiful. Their biology, especially the intricacies of their reproductive lives and their adaptations for flight, is wonderful to read and learn about. I can easily understand why people devote their professions to studying them. I also appreciate the special lure of Argia. In northwestern Mexico, where we spend half the year, there are about two dozen species of Argia. On our travels to other parts of Mexico and Latin America, we see other Argia, and more await us as we continue to roam in the Neotropics. Argia take us to remote and lovely places where we seldom see other humans. Many are brilliant blue with black markings. They look like bolts of blue electricity flashing over rippling streams and through bankside sedges, grasses, and shrubs. They are flighty creatures, but alight frequently to bask out in the open on rocks. I now like to think that every Argia I see is Dolly’s.

I thank Rosser Garrison and Natalia von Ellenrieder for reviewing and editing this essay and for providing additional information and anecdotes about Dolly. I add one note: August 29th coincidentally is Rosser Garrison’s birthday.

Regarding the photo of Dolly on horseback: Rosser Garrison provided this copy of the photograph to me. It is also archived at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. It is part of a collection of photos of scientists who have affiliations with the academy. Dolly wrote about the photo: “The faithful hat which served me on all collecting trips up to the year 1934 much to the displeasure of H.K.G!!”

Dancer in sedges. This, I believe, is a Yaqui Dancer, Argia carlcooki, I photographed on 20 November 2021 on the Rio Cuchujaqui below the bridge southeast of Alamos, Sonoran, Mexico.
The photo puts small damselflies like Argia into perspective.
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