The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Warmer Days Bring on Dragonflies and Damselflies
by Ro Wauer

Warmer springtime temperatures mean greater numbers of invertebrates, those cold-blooded creatures that require warm temperatures to become active. One group of invertebrates is the odonates, a fancy word for dragonflies and damselflies. These odonates are some of our most amazing insects. They remind me of hummingbirds, with their ability to hover and fly forward and backward. Unlike any other insects, they can move their wings independently. They can fly up to 60 mph and can lift up to fifteen times their own weight. What perhaps is most important for us humans is that their diet consists of mosquitoes, flies and other types of flying insects. They possess a voracious appetite. One dragonfly in captivity was fed 40 horseflies in two hours. They are capable of eating their own weight in food every half hour.

About 450 kinds of dragonflies and damselflies occur in North America, about 215 species are known in Texas, and more than 75 have been found within the Golden Crescent. And these dragonflies include such catchy names as petaltails, clubtails, darners, spiketails, cruisers, emeralds, and skimmers. Damselfly names include rubyspots, spreadwings, threadtails, forktails, and dancers.

Although some species of odonates can occur almost anywhere, wetland areas offer the best chance to see the largest variety. A large portion of their lives, from eggs to the larval stage (known as naiads) that undergo 17 molts, taking one to two months, occurs in an aquatic setting. The mature naiad eventually crawls out of the water, where it inflates its wings and the body hardens, and the adult takes wing. Away from the water the exoskeleton and wings continue to harden and the colors intensify. It is the adults, because of their fascinating behavior and appearance that received all of our attention.

Identifying dragonflies and damselflies is a mixed bag; some species are readily identified while others are difficult. Step one is be to recognize the difference between the two major groups. Dragonflies rest with their wings held out, horizontally or nearly so, while damselflies rest with their wings help together near the body. Also, the hind wings of dragonflies are wider at the base than the front wings, while those damselflies are similar in shape, both narrowed at the base. Male dragonflies possess three appendages at the end of the abdomen, while damselfly males possess four appendages.

Until recent years, odonate identification was difficult. But two recent well-illustrated books have made a huge difference: John Abbott’s “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and the South-Central United States,” published by Princeton Univ. Press, and Sidney Dunkle’s “Dragonflies through Binoculars,” published by Oxford Univ. Press. So far, since Betty and I, along with son Brent and friends from Austin, installed my own small dragonfly pond two years ago, I have recorded a total of 21 species. Most common have been roseate skimmers, eastern pondhawks, and blue dashers. Common whitetails, band-winged dragonlets, red saddlebags, flame skimmers, variegated meadowhawks, and neon, Needham’s and widow skimmers have also been seen on numerous occasions.

It is very possible that dragonflies and damselflies will become the next great interest in natural history for the average nature lover. Birds have long been at the forefront, and the increasing interest in butterflies has emerged in more recent years. But all of a sudden many of my friends are getting turned on to dragonflies and damselflies. After all, with such neat names and their constant presence, is it any wonder?


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