Conservationists race to save critically endangered insect found in the River Dee

Conservationists at Chester Zoo have become the first in Europe to successfully breed a critically endangered insect, which has been rediscovered 28 years after being declared extinct.  

Staff at the conservation zoo, renowned for its work to bring species back from the brink, were called in by fellow charity Buglife Cymru to start an emergency breeding effort for the scarce yellow sally stonefly – part of a rescue mission to save the species from extinction following its rediscovery in the River Dee, North Wales.

Having not been recorded since 1995, two small populations were found in the river – believed to be the only remaining location for the stonefly in the UK.

In 2022 conservationists from wildlife charities Buglife Cymru, Chester Zoo, the Welsh Dee Trust and freshwater invertebrate specialist John Davy-Bowker set about sampling and carefully collecting a small number of the stoneflies from the areas where they were rediscovered.

Thirty of the animals were then carefully transferred to a special behind-the-scenes facility at Chester Zoo where a dedicated team of specialists set about meticulously studying the insect during its lifecycle. Experts believe it to be the first time ever that the species has been successfully bred and reared through its complete lifecycle (nymph – adult – mating – eggs – nymph – adult) in a zoo setting.

Joe Chattell, an Aquarist at the zoo, said, “When just 30 scarce yellow sally stoneflies arrived at the zoo, the scientific data on the species was extremely limited. They were so few in number and, living for a period of just four to six weeks as adults, we really had no room for error in our efforts to save them. We had to learn as much as we could, as quickly as we could, to help them back from the brink. 

“We’ve been able to record and document every tiny detail about the stoneflies and their larvae – beginning by replicating their wild environment, which is highly-oxygenated water on the riverbed caused by water passing over cobbles, in our specially created breeding facilities. We then tweaked the lighting and temperature conditions each day to mimic a normal 24-hour cycle, while also including seasonal variations – a lot of intricate work goes into saving a tiny insect from extinction.

“In just a few weeks we were able to understand the species and its lifecycle, breeding patterns and favoured environment. Everything we have learned so far, including every slight tweak we made, has been meticulously recorded and given us a detailed blueprint which we hope will set the foundations for a conservation breeding programme for the critically endangered insect – all while helping to further increase the small surviving population in the River Dee.

“We’re enormously proud to be the first zoo to successfully breed this special stonefly, adding valuable scientific insight into the project with our partners, Buglife Cymru, who are safeguarding the species and its future here in the UK.”

Conservationists now hope their species-saving efforts will go on to secure additional long-term funding for a conservation breeding programme to help further boost the wild population in the River Dee.

Clare Dinham, Wales Manager at Buglife Cymru, added, “I’m very pleased to confirm that funding for the delivery phase of Natur am Byth! has been awarded by National Lottery Heritage Fund. As part of this programme, the scarce yellow sally stonefly project will carry out further surveys for the species along the Dee, helping to inform future conservation efforts over the next four years, which may include re-introductions to areas where it has historically been recorded.

“We were thrilled when Chester Zoo came on board as a partner in the project and they have achieved amazing results with their conservation breeding efforts, providing unique insights into the ecology and behaviour of this iconic Welsh species. We’re looking forward to working with them over the next four years on this exciting project.“This species is highly vulnerable to habitat loss, pollution incidents from sewage and litter, as well as climate change. The stoneflies need highly oxygenated, clean water to thrive so it’s important that their habitat in the River Dee is protected – especially as it’s currently the only known location in the UK for this species.”

The scarce yellow sally stonefly is a critically endangered species that was first identified in the River Dee in 1959 and was regularly recorded up until 1995 when subsequent surveys failed to locate any living populations in the UK. The species was presumed to have gone extinct in the British Isles – while a small number of populations were diminishing across Eastern Europe.

This work to protect the species is made possible by National Lottery players through a Heritage Fund development grant to the Wales-wide conservation partnership Natur am Byth.

About Scarce Yellow Sally Stonefly

  • The scarce yellow sally is a critically endangered stonefly which is only found along a 20km stretch of the River Dee in Wrexham County Borough
  • The Dee supports the only known UK population and away from here the species is present in only a handful of other rivers in western Europe
  • First found in the Dee in 1959, the stonefly was recorded episodically until 1995, but surveys carried out between 1997 and 2015 failed to locate it and it was presumed to have gone extinct in the British Isles. The rediscovery of the species was therefore a cause for celebration, however urgent action is now needed due to its limited distribution and rarity
  • Surviving European populations are likely to be few in number and occur mainly in eastern Europe in the Lafnitz and Rába rivers in south-eastern Austria and western Hungary, the River Tisza in Hungary, the River Jelesna in Slovakia where a single nymph was found in 1998, Northrhine-Westfalia in Germany and in central Sweden. The scarce yellow sally may potentially also occur in Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Main image: Conservationists race to save critically endangered insect found in the River Dee in Wales

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