Odonata: The Acrobatic & Aggressive Order Of The Dragonflies

Odonata (Dragonflies)

Odonata (Dragonflies) are a well known and fascinating order of insects. You will likely see plenty of them as you go out into the field in late summer, normally near water.

They are more common in warmer parts of the world than in temperate areas like the UK. Of the 5,300 named species world-wide, only 38 live and breed in Britain.

The Order Odonata is conveniently divided up into two groups: Anisoptera, the true Dragonflies which rest with their wings out from their body in a cross shape; and Zygopteran or Damselflies, who hold their wings above their body.

In this article when I say ‘Dragonflies’ I will mean both Anisoptera and Zygoptera, but I will use these terms separately when talking about the individual groups.

Odonata is one of the most popular orders of insects, as evidenced by the many long established organisations such as Odontalogica, Dragonfly Society Of America and British Dragonfly Society.

Dragonflies have strongly biting mouthparts and are active and aggressive carnivores, both as adults and as young (called nymphs), preying mostly on other insects. The adults have massively large eyes, often meeting at the top of the head in Anisopterans.

dragonfly eyes close up
Extreme macro shot of dragonfly eye on yellow leave

These eyes may each contain as many as 30,000 individual lenses or ommatidia (your eyes have only one lens each). Because of this, Dragonflies have exceptionally good eyesight and have been known to respond to stimuli from more than 40 feet away. They have very small and poorly developed antennae though.

They have two pairs of almost equally sized, long thin membranous wings. Both pairs of wings usually have a stigma (a dark or coloured patch near the middle of the leading edge) and a mass of cross veins, giving them the appearance of being a mesh.

Unlike most insects, which either flap both pairs of wings in unison (i.e. Bees and Butterflies), or only flap the hind pair (i.e. Beetles), or only have one pair (i.e. Flies), Dragonflies can flap or beat their wings independently. This means the front wings can be going down, while the back ones are coming up. You can see this happening if you watch closely.

Dragonflies are excellent fliers, particularly the Anisopterans and can loop-the-loop, hover and fly backwards quite easily. It is not unusual for the larger species to reach 30kph and the Australian Austrophlebia costalis has been clocked in at an impressive 58kph or 36 mph for short bursts.

Odonata Sympetrum fonscolombii
Red Veined Darter (Sympetrum fonscolombii)

They flap their wings relatively slowly though, at less than 30 beats per second. Compare this with 200 bps for a hoverfly, or 300 bps for a honey bee.

Odonata is a very ancient order of insects and fossils exist from more than 300 million years ago.

Dragonflies are also relatively large insects, even now, but in they past they were much larger. Fossil remains of some of the largest flying insects to have ever existed are Dragonflies, one species Meganeura monyi had a wingspan up to 75 cms.

The largest Dragonfly in the world now is actually a Damselfly (Zygoptera) Megaloprepus caerulata from Costa Rica, with a wingspan of 19.1 cm or 7.52 ins and a body length of 12 cm or 4.72 ins. Tetracanthagyna plagiata from Borneo is the largest Anisopteran or true Dragonfly. The smallest is probably Agriocnemis naia from Burma with a wingspan of just 1.76 cm or .69 ins.

Dragonfly Mating

Dragonflies are unique in the insect world, in that the male possess a set of secondary sexual organs on the 2nd abdominal segments, as well as his primary sexual apparatus on the 9th segment at the end of his abdomen.

Before mating can occur, the male Dragonfly must charge his secondary copulatory apparatus with sperm from his primary copulatory apparatus. Mating commences with the male grasping the female with his abdominal claspers.

blue dragonfly mating
Blue-tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans) mating

The pair then assume the wheel position with the tip of the female’s abdomen (and thus her sexual apparatus) engaging the male’s secondary copulatory apparatus. The male first uses his penis to remove any sperm left by a previous male, before inseminating her himself.

Copulation can take from several minutes to several hours, depending on species. The male stays in tandem with the female in many species, while she lays her eggs.

In those species which lay endophytically, some lay below the water line – and in some cases both the male and the female may become fully submerged. In other species, the male stays close to the female, guarding her while she lays. While in those strongly territorial species, the male may be satisfied by continuing to expel all other males from his territory – allowing the female to lay within the territory at her leisure.

Dragonfly Eggs

Dragonfly Eggs are laid either endophytically (inside the living tissue of a plant) or exophytically (into or onto the water or the mud of the bank).

dragonfly eggs being laid
Emperor Dragonfly – Anax imperator – Female laying eggs on floating vegetation

Eggs are normally laid in batches – one at a time in quick succession. Endophytically laying species tend to be limited to several hundred or less eggs per day, whereas exophytically laying species can lay several thousands per laying episode.

Some temperate Dragonflies overwinter in the egg stage and thus the eggs do not hatch for several months, however with tropical species the eggs can hatch in as little as 5 days.

Dragonfly Larvae or Nymphs

Dragonfly larvae are aquatic, normally in rivers, streams, ponds and lakes – but some species such as Podopteryx selysi make use of plant trapped water, such as water filled tree boles.

The exception to this rule is the Australian Antipodophlebia asthenes, whose larvae may be terrestrial in subtropical rainforests. Zygopteran larvae swim by flexing their abdomen from side to side, but Anisopterans tend to walk.

Although they can turn on the speed with jet propulsion, by expelling water from their anal respiratory (breathing) orifice.

Zygopteran larvae, like other aquatic insects, breath through caudal gills (their tails) but Anisopteran larvae breath through their anus. Which is an enlarged cavity with special internal folds to increase the surface area; water is pumped in and out of this muscularly, to increase water flow across the respiratory membranes.

dragonfly larvae Anisoptera
Undewater photo of Anisoptera dragonfly larvae – with detail of extending mask

Most dragonfly larvae are free ranging, though they tend to hunt by stealth often – sitting waiting for their prey to walk by, but some live in burrows in the mud. Larvae are carnivorous, detecting their prey by sight in most cases and catching it by means of a rapidly extensible grasping modification of the labium (you have to watch this to believe how fast it moves). They eat mostly other invertebrates.

Odonata Larvae generally go through 12 – 15 instars, depending on species and some bivoltine (having 2 generations in one year) tropical species can develop in as little as 60 days. In colder climes species tend to be univoltine (having one generation per year), semivoltine (guess) or even multivoltine, taking up to 6 years to develop in some near arctic species. Most temperate species therefore overwinter at least once as a larvae, as well as an egg.

Emerging Adults or Imagos

In any given set of climatic conditions, most Odonata species emerge at well synchronised times of year over a period of about a month. Many species emerge at night to avoid predation during this vulnerable time, but in colder environments some species wait for sunrise before emerging.

dragonfly emergence lifecycle
Dragonfly emergence sequence in the Downy emerald (Cordulia aenea)

After emerging, most dragonflies leave the vicinity of the water and go through a period of maturation. This generally lasts about one month, during which time the gonads finish developing and the body colour brightens. For many species this is also a time of dispersal.

Adults generally feed on flying insects which they catch on the wing. Either by flying around constantly, or by sitting perched on a lookout post and sallying forth to catch passing insects. Most species use one tactic or the other preferentially.

In some species, the males are territorial, i.e. they stake out and defend a territory from all other males, mating with any mature female that enters the territory. Territories may be held for only a few hours, for several days, or even longer in exceptional cases.

Dragonfly Predators

Apart from mankind, (see below) Dragonflies are eaten as larvae by fish (particularly Bass), water shrews, water beetles, water bugs, and birds particularly diving ducks.

In one study it was found that Dragonflies made up 14 percent of the food eaten by Ring-necked Ducks in America.

Dragonfly nymphs will also happily eat each other. As adults they are also eaten by Birds, with Blackbirds and other Thrushes specialising in taking them as they are emerging from their larval skins and therefore helpless. Another bird that eats a lot of Dragonflies is the Hobby, a small hawk which catches them in mid-air. Hobbies are relatively rare though and they do not hurt the population levels.

Dragonfly Symbolism In Japan

Mankind has long appreciated Dragonflies.

In a number of Asian countries, both the adults and the larvae are eaten much in the way we eat prawns. In Japan and China they have been popular subjects for poetry and paintings.

In fact, in Japan the Tombo or Dragonfly is a national emblem and Japan itself is often referred to as Akitsushima (the Dragonfly Island). This is because the first emperor, Jimmu Tenno, thought that – looked at from the top of a mountain – Japan looked like a Dragonfly licking its tail.

Odonata wing close up
Dragonfly wing in close up, reflecting light

Dragonflies also appear in Japanese mythology. ‘Shoryo tombo’ is the Dragonfly of the Dead whose job it is to carry the spirits of the families ancestors to the family, during the festival of Bon. Dragonflies are still much respected in Japan where they are a symbol of playfulness and victory in war. Japan has far more species of Dragonfly than the UK and was the first country in the world to create a special Dragonfly Nature Reserve.

A Japanese Dragonfly Poem

Lonesomely clings the Dragonfly to the
underside of the leaf
Ah! The Autumn rain.

Dragonflies have also been given many strange names in the UK, where it was wrongly believed that their long tail was a huge sting. Some of the names they were called are Horse-stinger, Horse-adders, Snake-doctors and Devils Darning-needles.

We now know of course that dragonflies have no sting, though they will give you a nip if you pick one up with your hands.

Mankind has a diverse effect on Dragonflies: many of his buildings – such as ponds and farm ditches – supply much welcome additional breeding habitat, but in other ways mankind has destroyed some species habitats entirely. Two species are known to have gone extinct as a result of mankind’s changes to the environment.

These are Megalagrion jugarum and from the USA and Sympetrum dilatatum from St. Helena. According to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) there are between 100 and 140 species threatened with extinction at the moment.

Odonata Taxonomy

The order Odonata is divided into 3 Suborders:

  • The Zygoptera or Damselflies, which can fold their wings over their abdomen,
  • The Anisoptera or Dragonflies, which can’t – and thus hold their wings straight out from their thorax,
  • The Anisozygoptera, an ancient suborder possibly once containing the seeds of both the other 2 more modern suborders, but now containing only two species from Japan.

Anisoptera means ‘unequal wings’ and generally speaking, the members of this suborder have their hindwings broader than their forewings. They are also normally stouter, larger and much more acrobatic in their flight; Zygopterans tend to fly slowly and leisurely, it is the Anisopterans that swoop around grandly.

See A Cladistic Representation of Odonatal Taxonomy at the Tree of Life

You can also check out Key to the Odonate Families and a Checklist of Odonata.

Order Odonata

Suborder Zygoptera

Superfamily Coenagrioidea

  • Family Platystictidae
  • Family Protoneuridae
  • Family Platycnemidae
  • Family Coenagriidae (=Agrionidae)
  • Family Pseudostigmatidae
  • Family Megapodagriidae
Superfamily Hemiphlebioidea

  • Family Hemiphlebiidae (1species only)
Superfamily Lestinoidea

  • Family Perilestidae
  • Family Chlorolestidae
  • Family Lestidae
Superfamily Agrioidea (= Calopterygoidea)

  • Family Pseudolestidae
  • Family Amphipterygidae
  • FamilyChlorocyphidae
  • Family Heliocharitidae
  • Family Polythoridae
  • Family Epalligidae
  • Family Agriidae (= Calopterygidae)

Suborder Anisozygoptera

  • Family Epiophlebiidae (2 species only)

Suborder Anisoptera

Superfamily Aeshnoidae

  • Family Gomphidae
  • Family Petaluridae
  • Family Aeshnidae
Superfamily Cordulegasteroidea

  • Family Cordulagasteridae
Superfamily Libelluloidea

  • Family Synthemidae
  • Family Corduliidae
  • Family Macrodiplactidae
  • Family Libellulidae

Bibliography

  • Askew, R.R. (1988). The Dragonflies of Europe, Harely; Colchester UK
  • Corbet, P.S. (1962). A Biology of Dragonflies. Witherby London.
  • Miller, P. (1987). Dragonflies (Naturalists’ Handbooks No7). Richmond Publishing Co. Ltd. Slough England.
  • Hammond, C.O. (1983). The Dragon-flies of Great Britain and Ireland,2nd Ed. Revised by Merrit, R. Harely; Colchester UK
  • Corbet, P.S. (1980). Biology of Odonata, Annual Review of Entomology 25 pp 189-217.
  • Tillyard, R.J. (1917). The Biology of Dragonflies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Photo of author

Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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