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Pachydiplax longipennis
© John Pickering, 2004-2017 · 0
Pachydiplax longipennis

Libellula incesta, Slaty Skimmer, male
© John Pickering, 2004-2017 · 10
Libellula incesta, Slaty Skimmer, male
Libellula incesta
© John Pickering, 2004-2017 · 0
Libellula incesta

Pachydiplax longipennis
© John Pickering, 2004-2017 · 0
Pachydiplax longipennis
Libellula luctosa
© John Pickering, 2004-2017 · 0
Libellula luctosa
Dragonflies and damselflies, like cockroaches, are one of the oldest types of insects. The only thing that has changed about dragonflies and damselflies, known as "Odonata," are their size. In prehistoric times, when dinosaurs could be found roaming the earth, odonata were as big as hawks. Odonate fossils have been discovered in Kansas, Siberia, and many other parts of the world. They had wingspans of about thirty inches and were the largest insects to ever live.-- (Nature Sketches)

Dragonflies and damselflies are fairly large flying insects. They are often very colorful and are carnivorous - they hunt and eat meat. Even though they can fly, odonates are considered aquatic insects because they live near fresh water and their larvae (young form) actually live in water. Dragonflies have been an extremely popular subject of folklore in many cultures, most notably Japan. In Europe they have been regarded as dangerous, but they neither sting nor bite and are in fact completely harmless to humans. Actually, odonates are in some ways beneficial as predators because they can be used to control pests. The quality of the environment can be somewhat monitored by odonates because their presence is strongly affected by different factors such as waterflow, pollution, and vegetation. Odonate larvae are sometimes used as bait by fishermen, and adults are a minor food item in some countries, but other than that dragonflies are of little economic importance.-- (Tree of Life)

Click here for Dragonfly checklist in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Characteristics: Adults
In general, the head of the adult is large and is dominated by the compound eyes. The face carries a pair of very short antennae. The thorax is skewed (small in front and large in back), which enhances perching and grasping abilities. The legs are strong enough to perch or hold prey but not suitable for walking. The abdomen is long (at least the length of one wing), flexible, and divided into ten segments. Both male and female odonates have clasping organs at the end of the abdomen. The females sometimes have an ovipositor under abdominal segments 9-10 with which to lay their eggs, and the males always have secondary genitalia under segments 2-3. Damselflies (Zygoptera), for the most part, appear more fragile than dragonflies (Anisoptera). Dragonflies rest with their wings pointed straight out to the sides, while damselflies usually rest with their wings more upward, fitting neatly along the top of the abdomen. Odonata cannot fold their wings over the body like most insects. -- (Tree of Life)



  • Corduliidae - green eyed skimmers
  • Libellulidae - common skimmers
  • Macromiidae - belted skimmers and river skimmers
  • Calopterygidae - broad-winged damselflies
  • Coenagrionidae - narrow-winged damselflies
  • Lestidae - spread-winged damselflies
  • Platystictidae - shadowdamsels
  • Protoneuridae - threadtails
Anisozygoptera - a combination of the other two suborders, only represented by two existing species (one in Japan and one in the Himalayas)

Common names & synonyms

The name "Odonata," created by a man named Fabricus in 1793, comes from Latin and means "toothed." The family name Libellula may have been derived from the Latin "libella" which means "booklet," and with some imagination, a resting dragonfly can look like a small booklet.

Odonata have widely been objects of superstition. In Germany, odonata have had over 150 different names, including names that mean "devil's needle," "water witch," "goddess' horse," "devil's horse," and "snake killer." In England, names meaning "devil's darning needle" and "horse stinger" have been used. In Denmark, some names mean "devil's riding horse" and "goldsmith." A Swedish name means "hobgoblin fly"; long ago, the people in Sweden believed that goblins, elves and fairies lived in the woods and used dragonflies as twisting tools. Another Swedish name means "blind stinger," and comes from the belief that dragonflies can pick out your eyes or even sew them shut. Also, odonata have obviously been connected to females: "damselfly." The body shape of odonata have led them to earn names than mean "devil's steelyard" and such because they look like heavy tools. The myth is that the Devil uses them to weigh a persons soul, and when a dragonfly flies around your head, you should expect serious punishment.

On the other hand, dragonflies are also thought to to beneficial. In Scandinavia, one cult worships the dragonfly as a symbol of a love goddess. Dragonflies are caught to be fried or eaten in soups in such places as Indonesia, Africa, and South America. In China and Japan, odonata are treated as holy creatures and are believed to have medicinal properties. The species Sympetrum frequens is actually used to help reduce fever. -- (Dragonfly Folklore)


Aeshna multicolor
Photo copyright C. Williams

Gomphus militaris
Photo copyright C. Williams

Erythemis spp. larva
Photo copyright Dave McShaffrey

Helocordulia selysii
Photo copyright C. Williams

Aeshna multicolor
Photo copyright C. Williams

Calopteryx maculata
Photo copyright Dave McShaffrey

Helocordulia selysii
Photo copyright C. Williams

Amoesta spp.
Photo copyright University of Michigan

Aeshna multicolor
Photo copyright Steven A. Valley

Aeshna multicolor female
Photo copyright Steven A. Valley

Libellula saturata male
Photo copyright Steven A. Valley

Aeshna interrupta
Photo copyright University of Puget Sound
See additional photos.

Geographic distribution

Natural history

Odonate larvae are not choosy hunters; they will eat any animal as large or smaller than themselves, including tadpoles, fish fry, and even other odonate larvae. The larvae move by a type of jet propulsion in which they squirt water out to create a moving force. As they grow, larvae undergo about ten to twenty molts. After the final molt, they emerge as an adult; there is no pupal stage. Emergance takes place on a fixed support out of water. Young adults, which can be recognized by a glassy sheen on the wings, fly away from water for a while to feed and mature, and some develop new color.

Adult odonata have well-developed eyes and hunt mostly by sight. They are also extremely agile fliers and catching one can be even more difficult than capturing a housefly. Adult males generally hang out near water to be seen by females, who mostly stay away from water until they are ready to mate and lay eggs.

In mating, the male and female form a 'wheel' position: The male gets in front and clasps the head of the female with the claspers at the end of his abdomen; the female is behind and bends her abdomen downward to the secondary genitalia of the male where she will receive his sperm. Dragonflies can mate while perched but can also (and often do) mate while in flight. The male is often present while the female lays her eggs so that other male competition will not disturb her. The female uses her ovipositor to lay the eggs on or into aquatic plants. If she does not have an ovipositor, she will disperse her eggs on the surface of the water. -- (Tree of Life)

Odonata adults need sunshine and warmth for their daily activity, and that is why you never see them on cold or cloudy days. Many species must therefore warm themselves before they fly, and they do this in two ways. First, they bask in the sunlight at right angles to the sunlight so they can get the most out of the suns rays. Second, when they are perched, they rapidly shiver their flight muscles, which creates heat. Some large odonata can overheat on hot days. To prevent this, they begin to make longer glides between wing beats (Miller, 1987).

There are many interesting facts and misconceptions about odonata biology and behavior. Many people believe that odonata live for only one day. This is not true. The odonata life-cycle can be from a few months to even a several years. One fascinating fact is that they can fly up to speeds of 25-30 miles per hour. Also, adult odonata will feed on mosquitoes, which can be good, yet they even eat butterflies. Some will even take spiders from their webs! As mentioned before, odonata antennae are extremely small. They rely mostly on their large eyes rather than their senses of touch or smell. Odonata can sometimes be seen flying in large swarms and this is probably due to either good feeding conditions in the area or a mass migration (like those of birds). -- (British Dragonfly Society)

How to encounter:
Odonates can be found in almost any type of freshwater habitat since they breed in these areas. Look for them near rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, and even marshes and swamps.

Links to other sites


Acknowledgements Updated: 6 November, 2009

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(Greek, odous = tooth)
Common Names: dragonflies, damselflies
Distribution: Cosmopolitan
Suborders: Anisozygoptera, Zygoptera, Anisoptera

Dragonflies and damselflies are easily recognized by their distinctive long bodies and outstretched wings combined with big eyes and short, bristle-like antennae.

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Damselfly Exuviae Dragonfly

Dragon-flies (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 and of the 5 300 named species world-wide, only 38 live and breed in Britain. They are 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.

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. 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. 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.

Dragonflies are 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.



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. The pair then assume the wheel position with the tip of the females abdomen and thus her sexual apparatus engaging the males 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.

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). 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.

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 though 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. Most 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.

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.

In any given set of climatic conditions most 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.

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 hour, for several days, or even longer in exceptional cases.

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.

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, and the Anisozygoptera an ancient suborder possible 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.

A Cladistic Representation of Odonatal Taxonomy at the Tree of Life

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 and 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 liking its tail. 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 poem reads
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 ofcourse 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, for many his building of ponds and farm ditches supplies much welcome additional breeding habitat but in other ways mankind has destroyed some species habitats entirely and 2 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.

Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Britain and Europe , by Klaas-Douwe B Dijkstra, illustrated by Richard Lewington
Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland , by Steve Brooks illustrated by Richard Lewington
Biological atlas of Aquatic Insects by W. Wichard, W. Arens and G. Eisenbeis
Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeast Ohio , by Larry Rosche
De danske guldsmede , by Ole Fogh Nielsen
The Dragonflies of Europe , by R.R. Askew
The Dragonflies of Great Britain and Ireland (Second edition) , by C. O. Hammond (Revised by R. Merrit)
Dragonflies: Status survey and Conservation Action Plan , by Norman W. Moore.
Aquatic Insects of Northern Europe Vol. 2. Odonata and Diptera; a taxonomic handbook. by Anders Nilsson (Ed.)
Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland , by Steve Brooks illustrated by Richard Lewington
Naturalists' Handbook Vol. 7 :- Dragonflies by Peter Miller
Atlas of the dragonflies of Britain and Ireland , by Merrit, R., Moore, N.W. and Eversham, B.C.


Askew, R.R. (1988). The Dragonflies of Europe, Harely; Colchester UK
Corbet, P.S. (1962). A Biology of Dragonflies . Witherby London.
Corbet, P.S. (1980). Biology of Odonata, Annual Review of Entomology 25 pp 189-217.
Hammond, C.O. (1983). The Dragon-flies of Great Britain and Ireland, 2nd Ed. Revised by Merrit, R. Harely; Colchester UK
Miller, P. (1987). Dragonflies (Naturalists' Handbooks No7). Richmond Publishing Co. Ltd. Slough England.
Tillyard, R.J. (1917). The Biology of Dragonflies , Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
A list of Odonata Books
Keys and Texts relevent to Odonata Slater Museum of Natural History
Collecting and Preserving Dragonflies & Damselflies
E-Mail Directory of Odontologists Got a Question? Ask one of these Gals or Guys.
Digital Dragonflies With some rather good images.
Odonata Information Network "OIN"
The FSCA "Dragonflies and Damselflies" Home page
A list of other Odonata sites
The Societas International Odonatiologica
The International Odonata Research Institute
The American Dragonfly Society
The British Dragonfly Society
Slovene Dragonfly Society
Catching and preserving dragonflies
Roy Beckemeyer's Odonata Home Page
Dragonflies A nice Site.
Ron Lyons Odonata Quite a worthwhile page.
quatic Invertebrates in Suffolk Some images.
Checklist of Kansas Odonata
Dragonflies From James Cook University , North Queensland.
Megalagrion damselfly status in Hawaii Hawaii Biological survey
Odonatal Images From the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
The Biology of Dragonflies and Damselflies
Checklist of the Odonata of California

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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

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