2017-12-01 / Community

Conservancy CONNECTION: Dragonfly is the beautiful predator of the sky

BILL RHODES

Visitors to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida are able to view or enter a variety of Florida ecosystems. The Christopher B. Smith Preserve, home to a large number of gopher tortoises, is typical scrub land; the Shotwell Wavering Family Filter Marsh is an estuarine environ­ment and the nature trails meander through hardwood hammocks and mangrove thickets.

Fresh or brackish water is close by in all cases, and guests see many diverse animals – birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians and insects. One ever-present animal starts its life underwater, and, as it matures, leaves the water for the air, becoming one of the most efficient, swiftest flying and feared (if you are an insect) predators in the sky. It has remained essentially unchanged for well over 300 million years.

Dragonflies, together with their close relatives the damselflies, are in the insect order Odonata, and can be found in the fossil record as far back as the Carboniferous Period, some 325 million years ago. While their body structure has remained essentially unchanged, some of those ancient dragonflies grew to have wingspans of almost 2½ feet. Today there are about 5,000 Odonata species throughout the world, ranging in wingspan from just less than an inch to nearly 8 inches.


The dragonfly starts life in the water and ends it in the air. The dragonfly starts life in the water and ends it in the air. As do all insects, they have three body parts (head, thorax and abdomen) and six legs. A dragonfly adult sports four strong, semi- rigid, veined wings and often has an iridescent, shimmer­ing body with large com­pound eyes. Each wing can move independently, en­abling the dragonfly to twist, turn and practically stop in midflight.

Unlike many insects, dragonflies go through only three life stages, not four. The male and female mate in the air, and the female lays eggs on marsh plants or the surface of the water. When they hatch, the juveniles – called nymphs – move deeper into the water and stay on the bottom. They are truly aquatic, equipped with gills, and are wingless, looking nothing like they will as adults. These nymphs are also ferocious predators, using their front legs and strong modified mouthparts to catch other small invertebrates, but will dine on just about anything they can catch, including tiny fish and tadpoles.

After a year or more, the nymph crawls onto a blade of grass along­side the water, and there it completes its transformation into a flying adult and takes to the air.

Despite their adaptations to be fierce predators in the air, they are harmless to people, and are often strikingly colored. Unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, they are the kings and queens of their aerial and aquatic worlds – highly efficient, often beautiful predators well worth pausing to observe.

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