Dragonflies and Damselflies

Published in Nature Watch

These delicate-looking, exquisite creatures play an important part in the natural chain. They are especially useful to humans because of their voracious appetite for mosquitoes and other biting insects such as midges.

Emperor Dragonfly Emperor Dragonfly Photo: Steve Jones

While they feast greedily on their preferred prey, dragonflies and damselflies are totally harmless to humans. They are relatively large insects, even today, although nowhere near as large as those which lived millions of years ago, judging by their ancient fossil ancestors which have been found, for instance, in France, the United Kingdom and the United States. They have been on earth from extremely ancient times, estimated at over 250 - 300 million years. They are classified in the order Odonata, which means 'the toothed ones' and is a sub-group of insects, which in turn are classified as a group within uniramian arthropods. The Odonata order consists of about 5600 species, with 130 in Europe, and some 165 in the Mediterranean Basin. The order is divided into three groups: Anisoptera (dragonflies), Zygoptera (damselflies), and Anisozygoptera, a relict group which consists of only two surviving species. Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the hexapoda (six-legged) subphylum of the phylum arthropodia, together with all other flying and non-flying insects. (A phylum is a group which is not as high as a kingdom, but higher than a class).

Scarlet Darter Dragonfly. Photo: Steve Jones
Scarlet Darter Dragonfly, female. Photo: Steve Jones

Our Dol nature-watcher Steve Jones reported in July 2019: "Birding has been quiet, although, saying that, more has been happening than last year, as pond levels are higher. I picked up a few new species for the year, but none that are new to me on Hvar. I have seen more dragonflies and damselflies than ever before, particularly at the moment. For the previous four years the natural pool pictured below has been completely empty at this time (26.07.19). Clearly the heavy rains in May have contributed enormously to the dragonfly activity this year. That said, I am not seeing that many species but considerably more than in previous years, for instance three species of damselfly as against one previously". This was good news, as the presence of dragonflies and damselflies most often means that the ecosystem is of good quality. Damselflies are much less sensitive to pollution than dragonflies, and some species of Odonata tolerate a variety of environmental conditions, so they can thrive in a wide range of habitats. Those which don't tend to be found in specific locations, whether flowing streams or rivers, still pond-water or marshy land.

Full waters: first time in four years. Photo: Steve Jones

Heavy spring rains on Hvar tend to create moving streams in the otherwise dry water-courses, so this may have accounted for the increase in species that Steve saw in 2019.

Red-veined Darter Dragonfly. Photo: Steve Jones

Dragonflies and damselflies are especially well equipped to devour other insects from their earliest moments. Their larvae (nymphs) develop from eggs which are laid in aquatic plants or moss, or on a water surface such as a pond or lake. They have fearsome jaws for consuming their prey, but their special weapon is an extensible, enlarged lower lip (technically labium), which is folded away and hidden under the head when it is not in use, but shoots out at great speed when a suitable victim appears within reach. The labium has a pair of hooks for capturing its prey in a pincer movement and drawing it into its jaws for consumption. This method of hunting using subterfuge is known as a mask, and the mechanism is said to be unique to dragonflies and damselflies. The insects, tadpoles and small fish which form their diet probably view the larvae in the same way as humans view the great white shark.

Blue-tailed Damselflies mating. Photo: Steve Jones

There are differences between dragonflies and damselflies, even though they look similar, and many people talk and write about them under the general heading of 'dragonflies' without distinguishing between the two. For a start, dragonfly eggs are round and measure about 0.5 mm, while damselfly eggs are cylindrical and measure about 1 mm. Some damselflies and dragonflies lay their eggs in the stems of water plants, some skim over water repeatedly dipping the tip of their body as they push out their eggs, which are washed down into the water, while some dragonflies push their eggs into sand or gravel at the edges of streams.

Emperor Dragonfly laying her eggs. Photo: Steve Jones

The larvae (nymphs) vary in shape according to their habitat, and may be just over 6 mm to some 6 cm in length according to species. In general, the dragonfly larva is shorter and fatter than that of the damselfly. Its gills are inside its abdomen, and it breathes by drawing water into the rectum and then expelling it. For propulsion, the abdomen can contract and expand forcefully, squeezing water through to create the power for short bursts of rapid movement. In the damselfly larva, three gills shaped like fins are attached to the tip of the abdomen, which is longer and narrower than the dragonfly's. Unless eaten by predatory fish, the larvae remain in their habitat for an extended period of about two years for most European species, up to about six years. During this time, they moult between six and fifteen times.

Emerging Vagrant Emperor Dragonfly. Photo: Steve Jones

To shed its outer casing for the last time the larva comes out of the water on to a rock or plant stem, in order to emerge as an adult with functioning wings. It misses out on the intermediate stage between immaturity and adulthood which other insects have, such as butterflies and beetles. Adult dragonflies and damselflies are not as diverse in form as their larvae. Unlike their larvae, they have few natural enemies, one being the hobby, a small bird of prey, although in their first few days as adults they are vulnerable to other predating birds and insects until their bodies harden and they begin to fly at speed. They are equipped with extremely large eyes which have some 28,000 units called ommatidia, and apparently use about 80% of their brain-power processing visual information from all directions: they can detect movement at a distance of 12 metres (40 feet). By contrast, their relatively large heads have only small antennae, but they retain the large extensible labium for grabbing their food.

Scarlet Darter and Blue Skimmer Dragonflies on sedge. Photo: Steve Jones

Their six legs serve mainly for catching prey or perching, rather than walking. They have various methods of controlling body temperature according to species and habitat, including basking in the sun and using their wings. They have two pairs of wings, which include a specialized hinge-type structure called a nodus on their front edge, whose purpose is to allow the wing to deform during flight without breaking. This is only one of many specialized features which allow the wings to work in highly complex ways.

Broad-bodied Chaser Dragonfly. Photo: Steve Jones

There are various differences between adult dragonflies and damselflies: the latter have smaller eyes, separated by a distinct gap, and more slender bodies than dragonflies. The main difference is in the wings: the dragonfly's hind wings are larger than the front ones, and broader at their base, whereas damselfly wings are the same size and shape, and tapered where they join the body. This means that the damselfly cannot fly as fast as the dragonfly. At rest, the damselfly folds its wings up across its back, whereas the dragonfly holds its wings straight out sideways. Dragonflies can attain high speeds and highly complex manoeuvres in the air. Some species are migratory, and have been tracked covering up to 18,000 km in the round trip between India and South Africa.

Southern Emerald Damselfly. Photo: Steve Jones

Just as they are fearsome predators, dragonflies guard their mating-ground territories ferociously. Some damselflies are also territorial, whereas others simply search for their mate by flying around and exploring. When mating, a dragonfly generally doesn't waste time on any kind of genteel courtship. He simply latches on to the female by grabbing the back of her neck, after which the two adjust position to form a kind of heart-shaped wheel so that the male can penetrate the female and transfer his sperm to her. In some cases, the male removes any sperm left by a competitor before depositing his own.

Black-tailed Skimmer Dragonflies mating. Photo: Steve Jones

Damselflies also form a wheel while mating, as in the photograph of the blue-tailed damselflies above, but are more varied in their methods of finding a mate than damselflies. Copulation may be brief or extended, and in some cases the male stays attached to the female and they fly around together right up to the moment that the female lays her eggs.

Green-eyed Hawker Dragonfly. Photo: Steve Jones

Some species of dragonfly and damselfly are under threat. Their decline is a great loss to our environment. We can only hope that gardeners, farmers and local authorities put an end to the massive use of insecticides, both larvicides and adulticides, along with the other damaging pesticides which currently blight the 'civilized' world. Poisons are counter-productive. They cause enormous collateral damage, without any positive effect. On Hvar, the damage to the insect and wildlife populations is increasingly visible, and human health is being eroded. The need to abandon chemical pesticides altogether is urgent.

Text © Vivian Grisogono MA(Oxon) 2019

Photographs © Steve Jones 2019

Many thanks to Dave Smallshire who helped Steve identify those insects which he was not sure of. Dave is co-author with Andy Swash of the highly praised guide "Britain's Dragonflies. A Field Guide to the Damselflies and Dragonflies of Britain and Ireland" 2018 (4th edition). Pub. WILDGuides. ISBN 9780691181417 (USA: https://press.princeton.edu/titles/13214.html)

Southern Hawker Dragonfly. Photo: Steve Jones
Sources:
Gullan, P.J., Cranston, P.S. 2005 (3rd edition) The Insects: An Outline of Entomology. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-4051-1113-3
Burton M., Burton R. 2002 (5th edition) The Encyclopaedia of Insects and Invertebrates. Silverdale Books, Leicester. ISBN 1-85605-708-9
Sverdrup-Thygeson. 2018. Extraordinary Insects. Weird. Wonderful. Indispensable. The ones who run our world. English edition 2019, pub. Mudlark - HarperCollins. ISBN: 978-0-00-831635-8.
Tennesen, K.J. 2009. Odonata: Dragonflies and Damselflies. In: Resh, V.H., Cardé, R.T. Eds. 2009 (2nd edition). Encyclopedia of Insects, Chapter 185 pp 721-729. Academic Press. ISBN: 978-0-12-374144-8.
Jongerius, S.R., Lentinck, D. 2010. Structural Analysis of a Dragonfly Wing. Experimental Mechanics 50 (9) 1323-1334.
Rajabi, H. Ghoroubi, N., Stamm, K., Appel, E., Gorb, S.N. 2017. Dragonfly wing nodus: A one-way hinge contributing to the asymmetric wing deformation. Acta Biomateralia 60 - 330-338
UCMP Berkeley Edu. Introduction to the Odonata, Dragonflies and Damselflies. (Internet resource)
Sheikh, E.M., Douglas, M. 2012. Biodiversity, Phenology, and Thermoregulatory Strategies of Odonates at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute. Undergraduate Research Grants for the Environment Report, Grand Rapids Community College.
Bumblebee. org: Hexapoda 5 (Insects) https://www.bumblebee.org/invertebrates/Hexapoda5.htm. (Internet resource)
Castro, J., 2014. Animal Sex: How Dragonflies Do It. LiveScience. (Internet resource)
Riservato, E., Boudot, J-P., Ferreira, S., Jović, M., Kalkman, V.J., Schneider, W., Samraoul, B., Cuttelod, A. 2009. The Status and Distribution of Dragonflies in the Mediterranean Basin. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Malaga, Spain. ISBN: 978-2-8317-1161-4
Mellal, M.K., Zebsa, R., Bensouilah, M., Houhamdi, M. 2018. Aspects of the emergence ecology of the regionally endangered Coenagrion mercuriale (Odonata: Coenagrionidae) in Northeast Algeria. Zoology and Ecology 28 (3) 224 - 230.
You are here: Home Nature Watch Dragonflies and Damselflies

Eco Environment News feeds

  • Tiny particles including tyre dust found in ice cores stretching back 50 years, showing global plastic contamination

    Nanoplastic pollution has been detected in polar regions for the first time, indicating that the tiny particles are now pervasive around the world.

    The nanoparticles are smaller and more toxic than microplastics, which have already been found across the globe, but the impact of both on people’s health is unknown.

    Continue reading...

  • Morrison government hails engineering milestone but researchers raise concerns and say it could increase emissions

    Australia will export its first load of liquefied hydrogen made from coal in an engineering milestone which researchers say could also lock in a new fossil fuel industry and increase the country’s carbon emissions.

    Under the $500m Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) pilot project, hydrogen will be made in Victoria’s LaTrobe valley from brown coal and transported aboard a purpose-built ship to Japan, where it will be burned in coal-fired power plants.

    Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning

    Continue reading...

  • The best of this week’s wildlife pictures, including beluga whales, a ‘snow fairy’ and two egrets hitching a lift

    Continue reading...

  • Government considers scrapping scheme that pays for energy efficiency measures for poorer households

    More than 30,000 jobs would be put at risk if the government were to scrap the energy bill levy that pays for home insulation improvements for poor households, the industry has warned.

    Ministers are mooting an end to the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), a £1bn levy on energy bills that pays for energy efficiency measures for people on low incomes. The energy price cap is expected to rise by about £700 to £2,000 for the average household bill in April, after a surge in gas prices.

    Continue reading...

  • Stunning images from the 10th year of the worldwide Ocean Art underwater photo competition. Thousands of entries from 81 countries were judged with the winners including nine taken in Australia

    Continue reading...

  • Some rightwingers claim renewables have increased costs, but Energy UK blames over-reliance on gas

    Energy companies want the government to implement policies to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, the industry’s leader has said, despite claims from some on the political right that high energy prices should spark a rethink.

    Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive of Energy UK, which represents the industry, said: “The government should press on with net zero policies. That’s something they still need to do. We are missing the carbon budgets.”

    Continue reading...

  • Stamford, Lincolnshire: It’s the coldest night in winter. I almost enjoy the sense of it working its way inside me

    It’s the coldest night of the winter. Just hours ago, the world was agleam with wet cold, now – with the dark – it’s solid cold. Things that rustled now rattle, and the grass is in a beautiful rigour of felty frost. It catches the moonlight and sparkles, a miracle that turns the colourless and drab suddenly starkly beautiful under the light of the dark.

    Clear winter nights like this are wonderful for stars. That, and to just go out and feel the cold and its tight silence around you. I stand and breathe deep, exhaling stiff, granular steam. And I start to feel it as it works its way in. Fingers, feet, nose. Then deeper, like an alarm of rising volume. Stand still enough for long enough and it takes hold of your core, a sickly pain, that – left long enough – will stop your life.

    Continue reading...

  • The deal to build an electric car battery plant near Blyth will bring up to 3,000 jobs to the area by 2028

    The UK government will invest £100m in Britishvolt as the car battery manufacturing startup seeks to build Britain’s first large-scale “gigafactory” in the north-east of England.

    The government’s Automotive Transformation Fund will invest alongside asset management company Abrdn and its majority-owned property investment arm, Tritax, to fund a sale and leaseback deal for the huge building that will house the electric car battery factory, near Blyth in Northumberland.

    Continue reading...

  • With meat consumption twice the global average, citizens of EU27 have to reconcile environmental concerns and culinary traditions

    A row over meat consumption in Spain over the last month is just the most recent eruption of the debate all over Europe, as the continent grapples with making its famous cuisines more sustainable.

    Food is inextricably intertwined with national identity for countries in continental Europe; a good steak, with perfect fritesstacked beside it; a plate of wafer thin carpaccio, drizzled with dressing or plain old olive oil; wurst, served with good mustard; jamón ibérico laced with creamy white fat.

    Continue reading...

  • Exclusive: Officers say cuts and operational decisions have made England’s regulator ‘toothless’

    Staff at England’s Environment Agency say it has been cut back to such an extent that they cannot do their jobs and the regulator is no longer a deterrent to polluters.

    Three officers at the EA have described to the Guardian and Ends Report how they are increasingly unable to hold polluters to account or improve the environment as a result of the body’s policies.

    Continue reading...

Eco Health News feeds

Eco Nature News feeds

  • In partnership with Conservation International, chefs in Hawaiʻi are cooking up creative ways to control invasive species populations.

  • Editor's note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In a recurring feature, Conservation News shares three stories from the past week that you should know about.

    1. 1,000 experts & leaders say “climate action failure” is perceived as top global risk

    Climate change and environmental degradation are among the gravest threats to humanity, says a new report.

    The story:The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risk Report this year finds that the top five long-term risks to our world are all environmental — with climate action failure, extreme weather and biodiversity loss ranking as the most severe. Risks were gathered from surveys with approximately 1,000 experts and leaders, Ashira Morris reports for World War Zero. Though climate change has already arrived “in the form of droughts, fires, floods, resource scarcity and species loss, among other impacts,” current climate commitments are not sufficient to meet the challenge, according to the report. 

    The big picture: “The World Economic Forum finds public and private-sector leaders in broad agreement … decisive climate action cannot wait,” Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan told World War Zero. “To date, the industrialized world has consistently failed to make good on their climate promises. As we look ahead to COP27,” — the international climate negotiations set for later this year in Egypt — “governments, companies and financial institutions must not only increase their own decarbonization ambitions — they must make fairness a priority [for] communities on the frontlines of climate change.” 

    Read more here.



    2. The great Siberian thaw 

    Russia’s frozen lands contain vast amounts of carbon, which is being released as the permafrost melts.

    The story:In northeastern Russia’s boreal forests, where permafrost can be a kilometer deep, annual temperatures have risen by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the Industrial Revolution — twice the global average, Joshua Yaffa writes for The New Yorker. Climate change, exacerbated by deforestation and wildfires, is melting the permafrost. As it thaws, once-frozen organic matter — everything from woolly mammoth remains to tree stumps — is releasing “a constant belch of carbon dioxide and methane,” writes Yaffa. This fuels a dangerous feedback loop: Greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere lead to higher temperatures, which in turn contribute to further melting these frozen soils.  

    The big picture:Irrecoverable carbon” refers to the vast stores of carbon in nature that are vulnerable to release from human activity and, if lost, could not be restored by 2050 — when the world must reach net-zero emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Due in part to its massive land area, Russia contains the most irrecoverable carbon of any country, with high concentrations in its boreal peatlands and forests, according a recent studyby Conservation International, which mapped irrecoverable carbon around the world — providing policymakers with the clearest view yet on the areas that most need to be protected. 

    One mountainous region, the East Russian taiga in the southeast corner of the county, contains 2 percent of Earth’s irrecoverable carbon — and the last Siberian tiger range — making it a priority for protection, experts say.

    Read more here.



    3. A third of commodity-hungry firms have no deforestation policy — report

    Companies that supply the world’s commodities are also driving deforestation, according to a new report. 

    The story:Protecting forests is critical to limiting climate change, yet a third of the 350 companies most involved in commodities such as soy, beef and palm oil lack policies to ensure their products do not contribute to deforestation, reports Simon Jessop for Reuters. According to Global Canopy’s annual “Forest 500” report, 93 of the world's 150 leading financial institutions — providing US$ 5.5 trillion in finance — do not have a deforestation policy covering their lending to companies in key commodity supply chains. 

    The big picture:Each year, large swaths of tropical forests are destroyed to make room for palm oil, cattle, soy and other commodity-driven agriculture. But this destruction of nature comes at a climate cost; tropical deforestation accounts for 8 percentof annual emissions, equivalent to those released by the entire European Union. 

    In November, at the UN global climate summit known as COP26, more than 100 countries — accounting for about 86 percent of the world’s forests — committed to stop deforestation on their lands by the end of this decade. In addition, more than 30 financial institutions pledged to eliminate deforestation driven by agriculture from their portfolios and increase investments in nature-based solutions by 2025. 

    “The new political space created at COP26 can pave the way for stronger and more broadly applicable legal frameworks … but these proposals could be strengthened, and must be enforced, with clear accountability and penalties for breaches,” according to the “Forest 500” report.

    Read more here.



    Vanessa Bauza is the editorial director at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

    Cover image: Alder Fire in Yellowstone National Park (© Mike Lewelling, National Park Service)

  • In case you missed it: Carbon offsets are helping protect mangroves and support local communities in Colombia, a vacuum could help pull genetic information for wildlife from the sky and more.

  • The UN climate talks (COP26) yielded key climate commitments. Our experts weigh in on the main takeaways — plus needed next steps.

  • Earth is teetering perilously close to a tipping point — but it’s not too late to bring us back from the edge, says Conservation International’s Chief Scientist Johan Rockström in a new Netflix film.

  • In case you missed it: Solar and wind power gain traction as global coal consumption plummets, violence and extreme weather pushed millions from their homes last year, and a growing number of people care about protecting nature.

  • Learn how Indonesia has taken incredible steps to protect these fascinating — and valuable — creatures.

  • In a historic announcement, the global civil aviation industry has paved the way for airlines to help neutralize their climate footprint by protecting nature.

  • In case you missed it: Pope Francis is imploring people to protect nature, the world’s largest coral reef is facing mass die-offs and restoring one-third of the Earth’s most degraded ecosystems is crucial to slowing climate change.

  • In case you missed it: Global greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly rising as countries ease COVID-19 restrictions, plastic pollution is growing across national parks in the western United States, and new research revealed that heat and air pollution could cause birthing problems for pregnant women, especially for Black mothers.