Dragonflies & Damselflies—This Ain’t No Fairytale

These two suborders of insect contain hundreds of species that date back to the days before dinosaurs, and their stories are incredible.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: Karen Lanier

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting an interpreter at a historic state park who has adopted the philosophy of the 18th century Shawnee people. She explained to me the significance of some of her silver jewelry. Around her neck hung a necklace, with a pendant of a cross with an extra horizontal piece. On her finger was a simple ring with a stippled pattern that formed a grid. Both of these symbolized dragonflies, a powerful animal in the Shawnee culture and in other indigenous belief systems.

Dragonflies can move up, down, left, right and hover in mid-air, changing directions and speeds with great agility. Their multi-dimensional movements represent the passing between this physical world and the spiritual world. Not many beings can move easily between the two, so this creature brings a special power of transcendence. The Shawnee necklace with the double cross portrayed the double-winged dragonfly, as well as the cross of Lorraine, as a way of incorporating Christian beliefs with their own traditions. The ring that the interpreter wore symbolized the path of a being that travels without inhibitions and goes beyond ordinary physical limitations.

Much more mythology surrounds these creatures, which are classified in the order Odonata (meaning, the toothed ones). Just take their names, for example. The Dragon and the Damsel. Sounds like a fairytale in the making, doesn’t it? (Cue dramatic movie trailer voice.) Once upon a time, 3 hundred million years ago, even before the time of dinosaurs, dragonflies and damselflies roamed the wild Earth … and that part is true!

Dragons Differ From Damsels

cherry-faced meadowhawk
Karen Lanier

So, how can you tell a dragon from a damsel? Damselflies are not female dragonflies. They are actually in different suborders within Odonata with different behaviors, and each comprise hundreds of different species.

For starters, dragonflies perch with wings outstretched and most damselflies keep their wings together. (That’s not meant as an innuendo.) Like certain big, macho guys, the dragons’ eyes are close together; however, wide-eyed damsels have a distinct space between their reflective, compound eyes. Damsels aren’t in distress, but they are weaker aerialists compared to the stealthy and quick maneuvers of dragons. They are petite, cautious and more primitive in evolutionary terms.

Dragonflies include the descriptively named families of darners, spiketails, emeralds, clubtails, skimmers, cruisers, and petaltails. Damselflies include families of narrow-winged, broad-winged, spreadwings, shadowtails and threadtails.

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The Mating Rituals Of Dragonflies

If we compare it to a fairytale, what goes on during the dragonflies’ mating act can be a bit grim (pun intended). There’s no Prince Charming when it comes to a “toothed one” sowing his seed. The dragon male can be a brute with his lady. To subdue her, he’ll grab her by the back of her head, using his powerful anal appendages. If you see what biologists refer to as dragonflies “in tandem”, with the male’s tip of his abdomen at the base of the female’s head, you could consider it a type of foreplay.

He’ll take her on a fly-about and then bend her to his will. When the tip of her abdomen reaches his reproductive organs at the base of his thorax, they make what is referred to as a “mating wheel” that loosely resembles a heart, if you want to romanticize the act.

With 450 species of dragonflies and damselflies in North America, flying at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, the males have to have incredibly keen eyesight to check out all the ladies and find a species match. Dragonflies (but not damselflies) are equipped with a lock-and-key system in their respective reproductive organs, so the wrong match literally is not a good fit.

Often, several males will mate with one female, but the last one in is the first one out; the final sperm has the best chance of connecting with her egg. The male dragonflies compete not just to take a turn but to take the last turn with the female. They’ll often guard her until she has deposited the fertilized egg. Sometimes a male will even remove sperm from the female’s ovipositor to give his own genes a better chance. His anatomy includes a barbed apparatus … well, let’s just leave it at that.

Cycles Of Life

Karen Lanier

Despite a wide variety of habitats and landscapes hosting them, dragonflies and damselflies need to be near fresh water. Depending on the species, it varies whether a still, quiet pond or a babbling brook is essential. Females deposit fertilized eggs in water by dipping their abdomen down to the surface and releasing the egg. After hatching, the larvae, called naiads, are excellent swimmers. Damsel naiads have gills that serve dual purposes—they take in oxygen and act as fins to help them swim. Dragons have a more exciting mode of water travel: They propel themselves by forcefully squirting water out of the anus. That’s quite a superpower.

Naiads resemble tiny sea monsters. They are powered by voracious appetites, fitted with a lower jaw like a steel trap that extends and retracts, jutting out and grabbing unsuspecting prey like the chompers in a Hungry Hungry Hippos game. They eat all kinds of small aquatic life, everything from mosquito larvae to minnows. Eventually, which can be years later, just like the ugly duckling, the naiad transforms into an elegant flying machine.

Similar to amphibians, dragons and damsels are born in the water and crawl to shore when they metamorphose. They need the land as much as the water, where they cling to stems or bask in the sun on rocks during their teneral phase. If you want to encourage dragons and damsels in your pond, don’t mow neatly up to the edge. Leave some standing native plants around the bank for them to hang onto.

At this point, they spend a few days becoming adults, and the ugly duckling/sea monster naiad emerges from its exoskeleton as a graceful creature with powerful, translucent wings. Now, they add the realm of the sky to their domain. Few birds can compare to the aerial predators. They eat all kinds of other flying insects, such as mosquitoes, wasps, butterflies, moths, bees, flies, and even other dragons and damsels.

It’s plain to see why people who live closely with the natural world, such as the Shawnee, view these animals with respect and awe. Dragons and damsels perform equally well above as below, at the proper time of their life cycles. Dragonflies and damselflies are never harmful to humans and can be a great help in controlling other insect populations. And they pause, just long enough for us to glimpse their shimmering beauty. Insects may be annoying or frightening, and yet if we can move beyond fear and take a step toward appreciation, there is always more to their story.

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