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Dragonflies and Damselflies

Dragonflies (Anisoptera) and Damselflies (Zygoptera)

General Description

Dragonflies (suborder Anisoptera) are heavy-bodied, strong-flying insects that hold their wings horizontally both in flight and at rest. By contrast, damselflies (suborder Zygoptera) have slender bodies and fly more weakly; most species fold their wings over the abdomen when stationary, and the eyes are well separated on the sides of the head.

An adult dragonfly has three distinct segments, the head, thorax, and abdomen as in all insects. It has a chitinous exoskeleton of hard plates held together with flexible membranes. The head is large with very short antennae. It is dominated by the two compound eyes, which cover most of its surface. Also, they have three simple eyes or ocelli. The mouthparts are adapted for biting with a toothed jaw; the flap-like labrum, at the front of the mouth, can be shot rapidly forward to catch prey.

The thorax consists of three segments as in all insects. The prothorax is small and is flattened dorsally into a shield-like disc which has two transverse ridges. The mesothorax and metathorax are fused into a rigid, box-like structure with internal bracing, and provides a robust attachment for the powerful wing muscles inside it. The thorax bears two pairs of wings and three pairs of legs. The wings are long, veined, and membranous, narrower at the tip and wider at the base. The hindwings are broader than the forewings and the venation is different at the base. In most large species of dragonflies, the wings of females are shorter and broader than those of males. The legs are rarely used for walking, but are used to catch and hold prey, for perching, and for climbing on plants. The abdomen is long and slender and consists of 10 segments and a terminal appendage-bearing segment.

Dragonfly nymphs vary in form with species and are loosely classed into claspers, sprawlers, hiders, and burrowers. The first instar is known as a prolarva, a relatively inactive stage from which it quickly moults into the more active nymphal form. The general body plan is similar to that of an adult, but the nymph lacks wings and reproductive organs. The lower jaw has a huge, extensible labium, armed with hooks and spines, which is used for catching prey. This labium is folded under the body at rest and struck out at great speed by hydraulic pressure created by the abdominal muscles. Whereas damselfly nymphs have three feathery external gills, dragonfly nymphs have internal gills, located around the fourth and fifth abdominal segments. Water is pumped in and out of the abdomen through an opening at the tip.


Many adult dragonflies have brilliant iridescent or metallic colors produced by structural coloration, making them conspicuous in flight. Their overall coloration is often a combination of yellow, red, brown, and black pigments, with structural colors. Blues are typically created by microstructures in the cuticle that reflect blue light. Greens often combine a structural blue with a yellow pigment. Freshly emerged adults, known as tenerals, are often pale-colored and obtain their typical colors after a few days, some have their bodies covered with a pale blue, waxy powderiness called pruinosity; it wears off when scraped during mating, leaving darker areas

The wings of dragonflies are generally clear, apart from the dark veins and pterostigmata. In the chasers (Libellulidae), however, many genera have areas of color on the wings: for example, groundlings (Brachythemis) have brown bands on all four wings, while some scarlets (Crocothemis) and dropwings (Trithemis) have bright orange patches at the wing bases. Some aeshnids such as the brown hawker (Aeshna grandis) have translucent, pale yellow wings.

Dragonfly nymphs are usually a well-camouflaged blend of dull brown, green, and grey.


Dragonflies as a group occupy a considerable variety of habitats, but many species, and some families, have their own specific environmental requirements. Some species prefer flowing waters, while others prefer standing water. For example, the Gomphidae (clubtails) live in running water, and the Libellulidae (skimmers) live in still water. Some species are found in temporary water pools and are capable of tolerating changes in water level, desiccation, and the resulting variations in temperature, but some genera such as Sympetrum (darters) have eggs and larvae that can resist drought and are stimulated to grow rapidly in warm, shallow pools, also often benefiting from the absence of predators there. Vegetation and its characteristics including submerged, floating, emergent, or waterside are also important. Adults may require emergent or waterside plants to use as perches; others may need specific submerged or floating plants on which to lay eggs. Requirements may be highly specific, as in Aeshna viridis (green hawker), which lives in swamps with the water-soldier, Stratiotes aloides. The chemistry of the water, including its trophic status (degree of enrichment with nutrients) and pH can also affect its use by dragonflies. Most species need moderate conditions, not too eutrophic, not too acid; a few species such as Sympetrum danae (black darter) and Libellula quadrimaculata (four-spotted chaser) prefer acidic waters such as peat bogs, while others such as Libellula fulva (scarce chaser) need slow-moving, eutrophic waters with reeds or similar waterside plants.


Adult dragonflies hunt on the wing using their exceptionally acute eyesight and strong, agile flight. They are almost exclusively carnivorous, eating a wide variety of insects ranging from small midges and mosquitoes to butterflies, moths, damselflies, and smaller dragonflies. A large prey item is subdued by being bitten on the head and is carried by the legs to a perch. Here, the wings are discarded and the prey usually ingested head first. A dragonfly may consume as much as a fifth of its body weight in prey per day.

The larvae are voracious predators, eating most living things that are smaller than they are. Their staple diet is mostly bloodworms and other insect larvae, but they also feed on tadpoles and small fish. A few species, especially those that live in temporary waters, are likely to leave water. Nymphs of Cordulegaster bidentata sometimes hunt small arthropods on the ground at night.


Many dragonflies, particularly males, are territorial. Some defend a territory against others of their own species, some against other species of dragonfly and a few against insects in unrelated groups. A particular perch may give a dragonfly a good view over an insect-rich feeding ground, and the blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) jostles other dragonflies to maintain the right to alight there.

Defending a breeding territory is fairly common among male dragonflies, especially among species that congregate around ponds in large numbers. The territory contains desirable features such as a sunlit stretch of shallow water, a special plant species, or a particular substrate necessary for egg-laying. The territory may be small or large, depending on its quality, the time of day, and the number of competitors, and may be held for a few minutes or several hours. Some dragonflies signal ownership with striking colors on the face, abdomen, legs, or wings. The common whitetail (Plathemis lydia) dashes towards an intruder holding its white abdomen aloft like a flag. Other dragonflies engage in aerial dogfights or high-speed chases. A female must mate with the territory holder before laying her eggs.


Mating in dragonflies is a complex, precisely choreographed process. First, the male has to attract a female to his territory, continually driving off rival males. When he is ready to mate, he transfers a packet of sperm from his primary genital opening on segment 9, near the end of his abdomen, to his secondary genitalia on segments 2–3, near the base of his abdomen. The male then grasps the female by the head with the claspers at the end of his abdomen; the structure of the claspers varies between species, and may help to prevent interspecific mating. The pair flies in tandem with the male in front, typically perching on a twig or plant stem. The female then curls her abdomen downwards and forwards under her body to pick up the sperm from the male’s secondary genitalia, while the male uses his “tail” claspers to grip the female behind the head: this distinctive posture is called the “heart” or “wheel”; the pair may also be described as being “in cop”.


Egg-laying (ovipositing) involves not only the female darting over floating or waterside vegetation to deposit eggs on a suitable substrate, but also the male hovering above her or continuing to clasp her and flying in tandem. The male attempts to prevent rivals from removing his sperm and inserting their own, something made possible by delayed fertilization and driven by sexual selection. If successful, a rival male uses his penis to compress or scrape out the sperm inserted previously; this activity takes up much of the time that a copulating pair remains in the heart posture. Flying in tandem has the advantage that less effort is needed by the female for flight and more can be expended on egg-laying, and when the female submerges to deposit eggs, the male may help to pull her out of the water.

Egg-laying takes two different forms depending on the species. The female in some families has a sharp-edged ovipositor with which she slits open a stem or leaf of a plant on or near the water, so she can push her eggs inside. In other families such as clubtails (Gomphidae), cruisers (Macromiidae), emeralds (Corduliidae), and skimmers (Libellulidae), the female lays eggs by tapping the surface of the water repeatedly with her abdomen, by shaking the eggs out of her abdomen as she flies along, or by placing the eggs on vegetation. In a few species, the eggs are laid on emergent plants above the water, and development is delayed until these have withered and become immersed.

Life Cycle

Dragonflies are hemimetabolous insects; they do not have a pupal stage and undergo an incomplete metamorphosis with a series of nymphal stages from which the adult emerges. Eggs laid inside plant tissues are usually shaped like grains of rice, while other eggs are the size of a pinhead, ellipsoidal, or nearly spherical. A clutch may have as many as 1500 eggs, and they take about a week to hatch into aquatic nymphs or naiads which moult between six and 15 times (depending on species) as they grow. Most of a dragonfly’s life is spent as a nymph, beneath the water’s surface. The nymph extends its hinged labium (a toothed mouthpart similar to a lower mandible which is sometimes termed as a “mask” as it is normally folded and held before the face) which can extend forward and retract rapidly to capture prey such as mosquito larvae, tadpoles, and small fish. They breathe through gills in their rectum, and can rapidly propel themselves by suddenly expelling water through the anus. Some naiads, such as the later stages of Antipodophlebia asthenes, hunt on land.

The larval stage of dragonflies lasts up to five years in large species, and between two months and three years in smaller species. When the naiad is ready to metamorphose into an adult, it stops feeding and makes its way to the surface, generally at night. It remains stationary with its head out of the water, while its respiration system adapts to breathing air, then climbs up a reed or other emergent plant, and moults (ecdysis). Anchoring itself firmly in a vertical position with its claws, its skin begins to split at a weak spot behind the head. The adult dragonfly crawls out of its larval skin, the exuvia, arching backwards when all but the tip of its abdomen is free, to allow its exoskeleton to harden. Curling back upwards, it completes its emergence, swallowing air, which plumps out its body, and pumping haemolymph into its wings, which causes them to expand to their full extent.

Dragonflies in temperate areas can be categorized into two groups, an early group and a later one. In any one area, individuals of a particular “spring species” emerge within a few days of each other. The springtime darner (Basiaeschna janata), for example, is suddenly very common in the spring, but has disappeared a few weeks later and is not seen again until the following year. By contrast, a “summer species” emerges over a period of weeks or months, later in the year. They may be seen on the wing for several months, but this may represent a whole series of individuals, with new adults hatching out as earlier ones complete their short lifespans.


Dragonflies are powerful and agile fliers, capable of migrating across oceans, moving in any direction, and changing direction suddenly. In flight, the adult dragonfly can propel itself in six directions: upward, downward, forward, back, to left and to right. They have four different styles of flight: A number of flying modes are used that include counter-stroking, with forewings beating 180° out of phase with the hindwings, is used for hovering and slow flight. This style is efficient and generates a large amount of lift; phased-stroking, with the hindwings beating 90° ahead of the forewings, is used for fast flight. This style creates more thrust, but less lift than counter-stroking; synchronized-stroking, with forewings and hindwings beating together, is used when changing direction rapidly, as it maximizes thrust; and gliding, with the wings held out, is used in three situations: free gliding, for a few seconds in between bursts of powered flight; gliding in the updraft at the crest of a hill, effectively hovering by falling at the same speed as the updraft; and in certain dragonflies such as darters, when “in cop” with a male, the female sometimes simply glides while the male pulls the pair along by beating his wings.

In general, large dragonflies like the hawkers have a maximum speed of 22–34 mph (10–15 meters per second) with average cruising speed of about 10 mph (4.5 meters per second).

Temperature Control

The flight muscles need to be kept at a suitable temperature for the dragonfly to be able to fly. Being cold-blooded, they can raise their temperature by basking in the sun. Early in the morning, they may choose to perch in a vertical position with the wings outstretched, while in the middle of the day, a horizontal stance may be chosen. Another method of warming up used by some larger dragonflies is wing-whirring, a rapid vibration of the wings that causes heat to be generated in the flight muscles. The green darner (Anax junius) is known for its long-distance migrations, and often resorts to wing-whirring before dawn to enable it to make an early start.

Becoming too hot is another hazard, and a sunny or shady position for perching can be selected according to the ambient temperature. Some species have dark patches on the wings which can provide shade for the body, and a few use the obelisk posture to avoid overheating. This behavior involves doing a “handstand”, perching with the body raised and the abdomen pointing towards the sun, thus minimizing the amount of solar radiation received. On a hot day, dragonflies sometimes adjust their body temperature by skimming over a water surface and briefly touching it, often three times in quick succession. This may also help to avoid desiccation.

Predators and Parasites

Although dragonflies are swift and agile fliers, some predators are fast enough to catch them. These include falcons such as the American kestrel, the merlin, and the hobby; nighthawk, swifts, flycatchers and swallows also take some adults; some species of wasps, too, prey on dragonflies, using them to provision their nests, laying an egg on each captured insect. In the water, various species of ducks and herons eat dragonfly larvae and they are also preyed on by newts, frogs, fish, and water spiders. Amur falcons, which migrate over the Indian Ocean at a period that coincides with the migration of the globe skimmer dragonfly, Pantala flavescens, may actually be feeding on them while on the wing.

Dragonflies are affected by three major groups of parasites: water mites, gregarine protozoa, and trematode flatworms (flukes). Water mites, Hydracarina, can kill smaller dragonfly larvae, and may also be seen on adults. Gregarines infect the gut and may cause blockage and secondary infection. Trematodes are parasites of vertebrates such as frogs, with complex lifecycles often involving a period as a stage called a cercaria in a secondary host, a snail. Dragonfly nymphs may swallow cercariae, or these may tunnel through a nymph’s body wall; they then enter the gut and form a cyst or metacercaria, which remains in the nymph for the whole of its development. If the nymph is eaten by a frog, the amphibian becomes infected by the adult or fluke stage of the trematode.

Dragonflies and damselflies are confused very much as some believe that the damselflies are small dragonflies which grow later on to the bigger size but this is not true as after metamorphosis the dragonflies are fully grown. There are differences between the two insects. Damselflies hold their wings while at rest but the dragonflies keep their wings in a perpendicular direction while at rest. Hind wing of dragonfly is somewhat broader than the fore wing while in the damselflies both fore and hind wings are similar in shape and size. The eyes in damselflies are apart while in dragonflies the eyes touch each other.

14 Fun Facts about Dragonflies

Flying insects are usually annoying. Mosquitoes bite you, leaving itchy red welts. Bees and wasps sting. Flies are just disgusting. But there’s something magical about dragonflies.

1) Dragonflies were some of the first winged insects to evolve, some 300 million years ago. Modern dragonflies have wingspans of only two to five inches, but fossil dragonflies have been found with wingspans of up to two feet.

2) Some scientists theorize that high oxygen levels during the Paleozoic era allowed dragonflies to grow to monster size.

3) There are more than 5,000 known species of dragonflies, all of which (along with damselflies) belong to the order Odonata, which means “toothed one” in Greek and refers to the dragonfly’s serrated teeth.

4) In their larval stage, which can last up to two years, dragonflies are aquatic and eat just about anything—tadpoles, mosquitoes, fish, other insect larvae and even each other.

5) At the end of its larval stage, the dragonfly crawls out of the water, then its exoskeleton cracks open and releases the insect’s abdomen, which had been packed in like a telescope. Its four wings come out, and they dry and harden over the next several hours to days.

6) Dragonflies are expert fliers. They can fly straight up and down, hover like a helicopter and even mate mid-air. If they can’t fly, they’ll starve because they only eat prey they catch while flying.

7) Dragonflies catch their insect prey by grabbing it with their feet. They’re so efficient in their hunting that, in one Harvard University study, the dragonflies caught 90 to 95 percent of the prey released into their enclosure.

8) The flight of the dragonfly is so special that it has inspired engineers who dream of making robots that fly like dragonflies.

9) Some adult dragonflies live for only a few weeks while others live up to a year.

10) Nearly all of the dragonfly’s head is eye, so they have incredible vision that encompasses almost every angle except right behind them.

11) Dragonflies, which eat insects as adults, are a great control on the mosquito population. A single dragonfly can eat 30 to hundreds of mosquitoes per day.

12) Hundreds of dragonflies of different species will gather in swarms, either for feeding or migration.

13) Scientists have tracked migratory dragonflies by attaching tiny transmitters to wings with a combination of eyelash adhesive and superglue. They found that green darners from New Jersey traveled only every third day and an average of 7.5 miles per day (though one dragonfly traveled 100 miles in a single day).

14) A dragonfly called the globe skinner has the longest migration of any insect—11,000 miles back and forth across the Indian Ocean.ere are over 3,600 kinds of dragonflies on