An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Odonata

“Mating Wheels”

Dragonflies and damselflies both create what are called “mating wheels” when they mate.  The male grasps the female at the back of her head with the terminal appendages at the end of his abdomen and the female curls her abdomen forward until the tip of her abdomen reaches the male’s sex organs.

Many male dragonflies go to great lengths to make sure their sperm have reproductive success. Prior to mating they often remove any sperm that happen to be in the female from previous matings.  In addition, depending on species, they may leave after mating, fly with and guard the female as she lays her eggs, or remain grasping the female as her eggs are laid.  His proximity to the female during egg laying prevents other males from removing his sperm.

Much of this information, as well as excellent photos for identifying dragonflies and damselflies, can be found in A Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Massachusetts, by Burne, Loose and Nikula. Another excellent Odonata resource is Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson.  (Photo:  Mating darners (fast flying, large dragonflies), male above female)

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Damselflies & Dragonflies Eclosing

6-10-19 damselfly emerging 0U1A0216It’s time to check emerging vegetation along the shores of ponds for adult damselflies and dragonflies emerging from their larval skins (eclosing). Fully developed aquatic larvae crawl up out of the water onto emergent vegetation and rocks, split the back of their skin and emerge as winged adults.

As the adult slowly pulls itself up and out of its larval skin two things are immediately apparent. Newly eclosed dragonflies and damselflies lack pigment, and they are extremely vulnerable to predation as they hang clutching their old skin, pumping air into their body and liquid into their expanding wings. These newly-eclosed adults must wait in this position, unable to escape predators, until their wings dry and they can fly. (Photo: damselfly eclosing. Note diminutive size of cream-colored wings before they expand.)

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Newly-emerged Dragonflies Vulnerable

6-8-18 grackle with dragonflies2 _U1A5228When a dragonfly larva crawls up out of the water onto emergent vegetation or a rock to split its skin and emerge as a winged adult, it is in its most vulnerable state, for until its wings are pumped up and dry, it is incapable of flying.

Often for two or three hours a newly-emerged dragonfly will cling to the substrate, pumping hemolymph into its wings until they are fully expanded and then hang there defenseless while its exoskeleton and wings begin to harden. Only then does pigment in the dragonfly’s body become apparent, and its formerly pale, colorless head, thorax, abdomen and wings (see inset) assume their true colors.

The pictured Common Grackle has taken advantage of this precarious stage in a dragonfly’s life cycle and collected several dragonflies to feed to its offspring. The dragonflies’ lack of color indicates that this predation took place while the dragonflies were still flightless and before pigmentation was present.

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Shadow Darners Laying Eggs

9-4-17 darner laying eggs2 049A4462

The dragonfly family Aeshnidae consists of strong-flying dragonflies called darners, some of which are over three inches in length.  The majority of darners reach the peak of their population in August and early September.  Male Shadow Darners (Aeshna umbrosa) can be seen patrolling breeding sites a few feet over the water’s surface, searching for females and driving off competing males. Females can be observed repeatedly landing at the base of cattails, inserting their sharp-edged ovipositors and slicing open leaves, where they then deposit their eggs.  If you look at the bottom third of cattails at this time of year, near the water’s surface, you will find tiny, tan, vertical slits where dragonfly egg-laying has taken place. (Photo:  female Shadow Darner laying eggs)


Common Green Darners Appearing

6-20-17 common green darner 021The Common Green Darner (Anax junius) is one of our most common dragonflies. often seen near ponds. The family of dragonflies known as “darners” consists of species with large eyes and long abdomens that tend to rest infrequently and when they do rest, usually hang vertically. The Common Green Darner is the only North American darner in which the male and female usually fly in tandem when the female is laying her eggs on emergent vegetation.

Up to 50 of the world’s 5,200 dragonfly species migrate and the Common Green Darner is one of them. In the fall most (but not all) adult Common Green Darners migrate south to Florida, eastern Mexico and the West Indies. Huge clouds of migrating dragonflies have been seen along the East Coast, Gulf Coast and the Great lakes in autumn. Transmitters weighing 1/100th of an ounce that have been attached to migrating dragonflies confirm that they migrate much like birds. Just like avian migrators, they build up their fat reserves prior to migrating; they follow the same flyway as birds, along the Atlantic Coast; and like birds, dragonflies don’t fly every day but stop and rest every three days or so.

Some dragonflies mate and lay eggs along the way, while others do so when they reach their destination. The eggs hatch, larvae develop and the adults head north in the spring. Unlike birds, migration is only one-way for dragonflies. It is the offspring of the fall migrating generation that migrate north in the spring. Here in the Northeast, most arrive before any resident Common Green Darners have emerged. (photo:  female Common Green Darner)

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Damselfly or Dragonfly?

6-16-16  damselfy & dragonfly 178A visit to a pond will usually include sightings of dragonflies and the more delicate damselflies.  Both of these types of insects are in the order Odonata (Greek for “tooth,” referring to the serrated jaws of the adults).  They are separated into two suborders, due to their wing shapes and sizes. The wings of dragonflies differ in shape and size (hind wings are broader than forewings), whereas damselfly fore and hind wings are similar in shape, with the hind wings sometimes being smaller.

In addition to wing differences, damselflies have eyes that are separated by more than an eye’s width, whereas dragonfly eyes either touch or are separated by less than an eye’s width.  Damselflies are smaller and more slender than dragonflies and perch with their wings closed over their abdomens or held slightly spread.  Dragonflies at rest hold their wings out flat or downward.  In addition, dragonflies are more powerful and acrobatic in flight than damselflies.

Although these differences distinguish them, damselflies and dragonflies do have many similarities. Both are carnivorous, both spend most of their lives as aquatic larvae, and both lay their eggs in or near water.

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Dragonflies Eclosing

5-26-16  dragonfly eclosing2  347 The sudden hot weather seems to have triggered a mass emergence of dragonflies and damselflies.  The emerging vegetation along the shores of ponds is covered with larval Odonates (members of the order of insects that includes dragonflies and damselflies) metamorphosing into adults.  The adults, still in the skin of their last larval stage, crawl out of the water, climb up vegetation, rocks, etc., and split the back of their larval skin.  The adult flips backwards out of this opening, hangs upside down and then grasps the vegetation and/or empty larval skin while as its abdomen is released.  The dragonfly hangs in the breeze while it pumps air into its body, sending liquid into its wings.

To appreciate this process called eclosion, compare the size of the wings in the photo insert (recently-emerged adult) with those in the larger photograph, which was taken twelve minutes after emergence.  Within a day or so the sheen on the newly-formed wings goes away, the dragonfly’s body hardens and colors start to appear.

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Darners Laying Eggs

9-1-15 dragonfly laying egg 135Females of different species of dragonfly have different techniques for laying their eggs. Most skimmers, cruisers and clubtails dip the tip of their abdomen to the surface of the water while hovering or flying, and release their eggs. Most darners, such as the Shadow Darner (Aeshna umbrosa) pictured, have a sharp-edged ovipositor with which they slit open a stem or leaf of a plant on or near the water. They then push their egg into the plant tissue exposed by the slit. Because they are stationary during this process, female darners are vulnerable to predation by fish and frogs at this time. A close look at the bottom third of cattail leaves this time of year will tell you whether or not darners are in the vicinity, as the slits they make are very apparent, appearing as thin, tan, 1/2″ vertical lines.

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button.


Dragonflies & Damselflies Spear Prey With Lower Lip

7-27 dragonfly mouthpart 077Dragonflies and damselflies are unique among aquatic insect larvae in that they have a greatly enlarged hinged lower lip, or labium, which they can rapidly extend outwards to capture prey. When retracted, the prehensile labium fits like a mask over the face or is folded flat beneath the insect’s head. When hunting for prey, the dragonfly larva uses its labium like a speargun. It shoots forward as far as half the larva’s body length away, and moveable hooks on the front edge grab the prey. There are no muscles at the hinge/joint, leading entomologists to believe that the labium is extended by increased blood pressure caused by abdominal muscle contraction. It unfolds at a right angle, and extends extremely rapidly, faster than most prey can react. (photo: cast skin of dragonfly larva from which adult dragonfly emerged)

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Meadowhawks Mating & Laying Eggs

9-30-24 autumn meadowhawks laying egg  043There is a genus of dragonflies, Sympetrum, referred to as meadowhawks, which emerge and fly in late summer and autumn, breeding in ponds and foraging over meadows. Mature males and some females of certain species of meadowhawks become bright red on part or all of their bodies. When breeding, the male grasps his mate behind her head with the appendages at the end of his abdomen and often does not release the female until after she has laid her eggs, which she typically does by dipping the tip of her abdomen in the water (see photo). The reason for this continued connection is related to the fact that a male dragonfly may remove sperm present in the female from any previous mating and replace it with his own packet of sperm, or spermatophore. In order to prevent this from happening, and to assure his paternity, a male dragonfly sometimes flies close to his mate, guarding her while she lays her eggs, or, in the case of meadowhawks, may fly in tandem with the female throughout the egg-laying process.

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Dragonfly Eclosure: A Vulnerable Time

newt eating dragonfly2 021Dragonfly larvae reside in ponds until the time comes for them to climb up stalks of emergent vegetation or adjacent rocks, split their larval skin and emerge as adults (a process called eclosure). Before it can take flight, a dragonfly has to cling to the substrate long enough to expand its wings by pumping fluid into them, and dry its exoskeleton as well as its wings. During this time the dragonfly is extremely vulnerable – not only can it not fly, but it is usually situated directly above the water. The slightest breeze can blow it from its precarious perch into the water below, where opportunistic predators such as this Eastern Newt are at the ready and make quick work of their helpless prey.

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Spreadwing Damselflies Mating & Laying Eggs

10-18-13 spreadwing damselflies 019Believe it or not, there are still damselflies (and dragonflies) that are flying, mating and laying eggs in the middle of October in northern New England. Certain damselflies known as “spreadwings,” unlike most other damselflies, perch with their wings partially open. (Another tell-tale spreadwing sign is that they often perch at roughly a 45 degree angle.) Spreadwings are weak flyers, and you usually see them flying low and for short distances. When sexually mature, the males tend to spend their days perched on vegetation along a pond’s shoreline. The females, like most dragonflies and damselflies, return to the water only when ready to breed. The pictured spreadwings (Spotted Spreadwings, Lestes congener, I believe) are one of the latest species of damselflies active in the fall; these two were resting before resuming egg-laying. The male (at top of photo) grasps the female’s “neck” (to prevent other males from replacing his sperm in her) while the female uses the sharp ovipositor at the end of her abdomen to slice into emergent vegetation and lay her eggs, which eventually end up in the water when the plants die.


Common Green Darners Migrating

9-16-13 common green darner 249The Common Green Darner, Anax junius, is one of our largest dragonflies, measuring three inches long, with a four-inch wingspread. It is strikingly colored, with a green thorax and a bright blue (male) or reddish (female) abdomen. As if that weren’t enough to set this dragonfly apart, it is also migratory. Common Green Darners migrate south from August to November, stopping over (like migrating birds) occasionally along the way, resuming flight after resting and refueling. Thanks to radio telemetry, we now know that over a two-month migration, Common Green Darners, each weighing about one gram, can migrate over 400 miles. (Photograph is of a Common Green Darner perched on Bottle Gentian.)

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Damselfly Reflections

Taken 10 minutes ago — sometimes no words are necessary. Have a glorious late summer weekend! 8-16-13  damselfly reflections 085


Eastern Kingbird Nestling With A Mouthful

kingbird feeding young female widow skimmer dragonfly 1090If you look very closely you will see that the adult Eastern Kingbird has just stuffed a female Widow Skimmer dragonfly (that it has caught and killed) down the throat of one of its nestlings whose beak is pointed skyward. Eventually, after much hard work, the young kingbird succeeded in swallowing the insect, wings and all. The parents will continue feeding their nestlings for at least three weeks after they have fledged.


Damselflies Laying Eggs

damselfly laying eggs2 354The two damselflies in this photograph have mated, but the male is still clasping the back of the female’s head so as to guard her and prevent her from receiving the sperm of another male before she is through laying eggs. Damselflies lay their eggs both in the water as well as in plants. The pictured female (bottom damselfly) is in the act of using her ovipositor (thin black structure at tip of abdomen) to puncture a cattail leaf and insert her 1 mm- long egg into the plant tissue. If you look closely, you will see holes in the leaf blade above the hole she’s currently making, where she has previously laid eggs. Thousands of these holes may be drilled and eggs inserted into them during her brief life.


Dragonfly Eyes

7-8-13 dragonfly eyes2 381Dragonflies (and bees) have the largest compound eyes of any insect, each containing up to 30,000 facets, or ommatidia (house flies have 6,000). Each facet points in a slightly different direction and creates its own image, and the dragonfly’s brain compiles these thousands of images into one picture. This eye structure enables dragonflies to be extremely sensitive to motion. Because a dragonfly’s eyes wrap around its head, it can see in all directions at the same time (though its forward-looking vision is the sharpest). When capturing prey, a dragonfly doesn’t chase it – it intercepts it in mid-air, and it’s successful nearly 95% of the time. This hunting technique entails calculating the distance of its prey, the direction it’s moving and the speed that it’s flying – an impressive feat any tennis, baseball or football player would especially appreciate!

(Photo is looking down on the eyes of a Common Green Darner. Three simple eyes, or ocelli, are located in the black section below (above in the photo) its two tan compound eyes. The short, thin black lines are its antennae, which can detect wind direction and speed. The yellow section is part of the upper half of its face, or frons.)


Damselflies Hunting

6-12-13 damselfly eating prey2 147Damselflies, nature’s more delicate version of a dragonfly, spend most of their life underwater, first as an egg and then as a nymph. Eventually, after a year or so, they crawl out of the water onto nearby vegetation, shed their nymphal skin for the final time and emerge as winged adults. A damselfly’s beauty belies its behavior — most damselflies are voracious predators, both as aquatic nymphs as well as adults. In flight, they hold their bristly hind legs in a basket shape to scoop up their prey. The prey is then transferred to their front legs, which hold it while the damselfly devours it.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Autumn Meadowhawks Mating

Meadowhawks are the only small red dragonflies seen in New England (most males are red, most females are brown).The latest species of dragonfly flying in the fall in this area is the Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), which doesn’t emerge until mid-summer. It seems a bit incongruous to observe these dragonflies not only flying, but mating and laying eggs in late October, but that is exactly when you can expect to see them. Until there have been several hard frosts, these winged masters of the air are able to keep active by basking in the sun and warming their flight muscles. The two pictured Autumn Meadowhawks are copulating in the typical “mating wheel” fashion, with the male grasping the female behind her head while the female places the tip of her abdomen at the spot on his abdomen (the seminal vesicle) where he stores his sperm. The female Autumn Meadowhawk lays her eggs in tandem with the male (his presence prevents other male meadowhawks from replacing his sperm with their own).


Twelve-spotted Skimmers

Twelve-spotted Skimmers are classified as “King Skimmers,” all members of which are large and conspicuous, often with distinctive wing patterns.   Male Twelve-spotted Skimmers (pictured) have a grayish bloom on their abdomens and each wing has three dark spots with white spots in between them.  Females have brown abdomens and no white spots on their wings.  All summer you can see males flying back and forth short distances along the shores of ponds and over water, hovering as well as perching.  They are territorial and patrol over water, loop-de-looping with competing males.  A small number of Twelve-spotted Skimmers occasionally take part in Atlantic Coast migrations.


Beaverpond Baskettail

Beaverpond Baskettail dragonflies have an early flight season, first appearing in May in the Northeast.  The males (pictured) cruise over the water (often beaver ponds, hence their name) as well as the shore in sexual patrol flight, flying back and forth over the same area repeatedly.  After mating, the female accumulates a large egg cluster at the tip of her abdomen, and as she drags it along the surface of the water, a long string of eggs is draped over plants.  Once these strings expand, they can be several feet in length and an inch or more in diameter.


Naturally Curious wins National Outdoor Book Award

I am delighted to be able to tell you that this morning I learned that NATURALLY CURIOUS won the Nature Guidebook category of the 2011 National Outdoor Book Awards.  I’m honored and humbled by this recognition.   http://www.noba-web.org/books11.htm


Damselflies Laying Eggs

Different species of damselflies and dragonflies emerge throughout the warmer months of the year.  Entomologists lump them all into three categories  —  “spring,” “summer” and “fall” fliers.  Fall fliers generally emerge in mid-summer and fly through early to mid-October.  Recently, at a nearby pond, it appeared that damselflies were taking advantage of the lingering warm days by mating and laying eggs before cold weather set in.  Nearly every cattail leaf was loaded with several pairs of damselflies, most of which were still attached to one another (the males continue to grasp the females after mating with them to prevent the removal of their sperm by other males).  When I returned the next day, there wasn’t a damselfly in sight.