10 Fascinating Facts About Dragonflies

Ancient Insects with Surprising Qualities

Dragonfly
Norio Nakayama / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Children may be fearful of the prehistoric-looking dragonflies that swoop over their heads in the summer. After all, according to one myth, they can sew up your lips! In fact, fortunately, dragonflies are harmless. Even better, they feast on pests like mosquitoes and midges. They're also fascinating creatures with unusual habits.

1. Dragonflies Are Ancient Insects

Long before the dinosaurs walked the Earth, dragonflies took to the air. If we could transport ourselves back 250 million years, we would immediately recognize the familiar sight of dragonflies flying in pursuit of prey. Griffenflies, the gigantic precursors of our modern dragonflies, took flight in the Carboniferous period over 300 million years ago.

2. Dragonfly Nymphs Live In the Water

There's a good reason why you see dragonflies and damselflies around ponds and lakes: they're aquatic! Female dragonflies deposit their eggs on the water's surface, or in some cases, insert them into aquatic plants or mosses. Once hatched, the nymph dragonfly spends its time hunting other aquatic invertebrates. Larger species will even eat the occasional small fish or tadpole. After molting 9-17 times, the dragonfly will finally be ready for adulthood, and the nymph will crawl out of the water to shed its final nymphal skin.

3. Nymphs Breath Through Their Anus

A damselfly nymph actually breathes through gills inside its rectum. The dragonfly nymph will pull water into its anus, where gas exchange occurs. When the dragonfly expels the water from its rear, it propels the nymph forward, providing the added benefit of locomotion.

4. Most New Dragonfly Adults Are Eaten

When the nymph is finally ready for adulthood, it crawls out of the water onto a rock or plant stem and molts one last time. It takes up to an hour for the adult to expand its body. This newly emerged dragonfly, referred to as a teneral adult, is soft-bodied and pale, and highly vulnerable to predators. For the first few days, until its body hardens fully, it is a weak flier. Teneral adults are ripe for the picking, and birds and other predators consume a significant number of young dragonflies in the first few days after emergence.

5. Dragonflies Have Excellent Vision

Relative to other insects, dragonfly vision is extraordinarily good. Thanks to two huge compound eyes, the dragonfly has nearly 360° vision and can see a wider spectrum of colors than humans. Each compound eye contains as many as 30,000 lenses or ommatidia; a dragonfly uses about 80 percent of its brain to process all this visual information. This remarkable vision helps them detect the movement of other insects and avoid collisions in flight.

6. Dragonflies Are Masters of Flight

Dragonflies can move each of their four wings independently. They can flap each wing up and down, and rotate their wings forward and back on an axis. Dragonflies can move straight up or down, fly backwards, stop and hover, and make hairpin turns, at full speed or in slow motion. A dragonfly can fly forward at a speed of 100 body lengths per second, or up to 30 miles per hour. Scientists at Harvard University used high-speed cameras to photograph dragonflies taking flight, catching prey, and returning to a perch, all within the time span of just 1-1.5 seconds.

7. Male Dragonflies Will Fight for Territory

Competition for females is fierce, and male dragonflies will aggressively fend off other suitors. In some species, males will claim and defend a territory against intrusion from other males. Skimmers, clubtails, and petaltails scout out prime egg-laying locations around ponds; should a competitor fly into his chosen habitat, the defending male will chase him off. Other kinds of dragonflies don't defend specific territories, but will still behave aggressively to other males that cross their flight paths or dare to approach their perches.

8. Male Dragonflies Have Multiple Sex Organs

In nearly all insects, the male sex organs are located at the tip of the abdomen. Not so in male dragonflies. His copulatory organ is on the underside of his abdomen, up around the second and third segments. His sperm, however, is stored in an opening of his ninth abdominal segment. Before mating, he has to fold his abdomen and transfer his sperm to his penis.

9. Some Dragonflies Migrate

A number of dragonfly species are known to migrate, either singly or en masse. As with other organisms that migrate, dragonflies relocate to follow or find needed resources, or in response to environmental changes like cold weather. Green darners, for example, fly south each fall, moving in sizeable swarms. They migrate north again in the spring. The globe skimmer is one of several species known to develop in temporary freshwater pools. Forced to follow the rains that replenish their breeding sites, the globe skimmer set a new insect world record when a biologist documented its 11,000 mile trip between India and Africa.

10. Dragonflies Thermoregulate

  • Like all insects, dragonflies are technically ectotherms, but that doesn't mean they're at the mercy of Mother Nature to keep them warm or cool. Dragonflies that patrol (fly back and forth, versus those that tend to perch) will fire up their wings, using a rapid whirring movement to warm up their bodies. Perching dragonflies rely on solar energy for warmth and position their bodies skillfully to maximize the surface area exposed to the sun's rays. Some even use their wings as reflectors, tilting them to direct the solar radiation toward their bodies. Conversely, during hot spells some dragonflies will position their bodies to minimize sun exposure, and use their wings to deflect the sun.