Who needs to watch Game of Thrones to see dragons, just go out to the nearest meadow, stream or pond and you will be amazed to see all sorts of dragons flying around…dragonflies that is. Worldwide 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. There are approximately 95 species of dragonflies broken down into seven families in Northeast Ohio and 45 species of damselfies, broken down into three families. However they are not flies. Flies belong to the order Diptra, meaning two wings. Odonate have four wings. As typical adult insects they have a head, thorax, abdomen, legs, wings, eyes, and antennae. The largest dragonfly is the Dragonunter and the smallest being the Elin Skimmer. The Great Spreadwing is the largest damselfly while the Citrine Forktail is the smallest in Northeast Ohio.
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. To give this perspective, think pigeon size.
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. Dragonflies catch their insect prey by grabbing it with their feet while flying. They form a basket with feet and swoop up unsuspecting prey. They can also eat while flying. 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. Dragonflies are a great control on the mosquito population. A single dragonfly can eat 30 to hundreds of mosquitoes per day, not to mention a butterfly, beetle, or other dragonflies.
They hunt by movement and have excellent vision. They have a wraparound compound eye which gives them an almost 360 degrees field of vision so they can track almost any movement. Their eyes also play an important role in telling both groups apart. Most if not all Dragonflies eyes touch each other in the middle of their head, while Damselfies eyes are on the side of their head. As mentioned earlier, Dragonflies are expert fliers and can track down prey at speeds approaching 40 mph. Damselflies are not as adept in flight and are much slower, only reaching speeds of 6 mph.
Both dragonflies and damselflies are classified as aquatic insects because they spend most of their lives as larvae underwater among plants or in silt. They are ferocious predators eating anything they can catch. They may spend five years or more in the larval stage, molting several times before emerging as adults. They go through incomplete metamorphosis, meaning no pupal stage, and go from larval stage into adult hood without any transformation. This process usually takes place during the early morning hours when birds and other predators are not as active. During this stage is when both group are exceptionally vulnerable to predation by their enemies. Dragonfly larva are large and chunky, while damselflies are much daintier, with three tails. Adults are relative short-lived. Dragonflies usually live for 2-6 weeks while damselflies live 2-3 days. Their sole mission as adults is to making more dragonflies or damselflies.
Dragonflies have fascinated people for centuries. Their color pattern are unique as they are vibrant. Green, blues, oranges, and reds showcase these dazzling insects. Dragonflies have been a symbol of purity, activity, and swiftness for some Native Americans. The indication of purity comes from both the pure water in healthy aquatic habitats where dragonflies thrive. Dragonflies don’t bite, so go out on a hot summer day and enjoy these amazing creatures. It is well worth the time.