As an entomologist and insect photographer, I am constantly amazed and bewildered by the diversity and adaptability of our six-legged friends. My goal here is to share some of my interest with those of you reading, and hopefully improve your overall perception of insects. So for my first insect-focused article on High and Wide, I thought I’d introduce you to one of my favourites – the dragonfly.
I’m going to assume that everyone has seen a dragonfly at some stage in their lives. But before I go any further, I’d like to point out that dragonflies and damselflies, although similar in appearance, are two different things. You’ve almost certainly seen both, and they’re actually quite easy to tell apart.
Dragonflies – large eyes that usually touch in the middle, fore and hind-wings shaped differently.
Damselflies – smaller eyes, typically separated on either side of the head, wings similar in shape and narrowing towards the body.
Now back to dragonflies…
As far as insects go, they’re very common in our sub-tropical climate, and seem to have adapted to urban landscapes well. Although you will probably see them flying around just about anywhere, you might have noticed higher numbers near freshwater creeks and ponds, and there’s a very good reason for this.
Dragonflies have two starkly contrasting life stages – one aquatic and one airborne.
As juveniles, dragonflies exist almost exclusively underwater, and are predators of small water-dwelling animals like fish, amphibians and other insects. These juvenile nymphs or naiads even have gill-like structures (albeit in their anuses) that let them breath underwater. So yes, they literally breath through their arses!
After spending a large proportion of their lives underwater, the nymphs crawl out into the air, slowly transitioning to the different environment, and moult into the winged adult form.
Adult dragonflies are remarkable fliers, and I encourage you all to stop for a moment and watch one, next time you’re walking past a creek or pond. Their excellent eyesight and agile flight allow them to hunt other insects mid-air, and avoid being caught by birds and other would-be predators. When it comes time to mate, they manage that mid-flight too!
During mating, male dragonflies clasp females behind their necks with special appendages on the ends of their abdomens – eat your heart out Christian Grey. Females then lay their eggs in water, which brings us back to the aquatic stage of their lifecycle.
In my (definitely biased) opinion, dragonflies are beautiful creatures. They display a huge range of stunning colours and intricate forms, they have evolved to a life both in and out of water and are some of the most impressive aerial acrobats on earth. You don’t have to love them, or keep them as pets to cuddle, but I hope you’ll have a bit more interest and appreciation for them now.
For good spots to see dragonflies (and damselflies), check out one of the creek walks reviewed previously.
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Words and Images: Tom Semple