Odonata: Dragons and Damsels … Oh My!

This isn’t going to be a piece about “Lord of the Rings,” “Shrek” or “How to Train Your Dragon.” This blog is going to feature some of the way cooler members of the order of animals known as Odonata, the dragonflies and damselflies that call our region home. Dragonflies and damselflies are symbols of happiness, new beginnings and hope. They are also an indicator of good water quality!

Adult dragonflies and damselflies are the most conspicuous and easiest to observe. Their aerial maneuvers are incredible! They can fly in all directions and changes in direction happen at lightning speed. This amazing flight ability makes them incredible predators, catching – and sometimes even eating – prey while in flight!

Dragonflies vs. Damselflies: What’s the Difference?

Dragonflies hold their wings out to the sides of their bodies. This is a blue dragonfly sitting atop a blade of grass.
As this member of Odonata holds its wings out to the sides of its body, you can tell it’s a dragonfly.

You can tell dragonflies and damselflies apart when you see them resting on a branch, leaf or other object. Dragonflies hold their wings out to the sides of their bodies; damselflies fold them up over their backs. Damselflies are often more petite – shorter in length, more slender bodies than dragonflies. Both, however, start life out in water. 

Depending on the species, eggs are laid either directly into the water, in waterlogged soil, on aquatic plants or maybe even into the stem of aquatic plants. Each species has its own timeframe for the egg to hatch and larvae develop; some species take up to four years to transform into the adult form! When the larvae is ready to make that final transformation into the adult form, it crawls out of the water onto a plant stem, the exoskeleton splits and the adults make their way out of the shell. It can take a few days for the exoskeleton of the new adults to fully harden and be able to fly. Both adults and larvae are voracious predators and can be found in a wide variety of water habitats: rivers, streams, wetlands, bogs and even vernal ponds!

The Jewels of Odonata

Left: A male ebony jewelwing damselfly. You can see how the iridescent body looks emerald green. Right: A female ebony jewelwing damselfly. Look closely at the tips of the wings to see the white spot. (Photos: Amy Roell)

Ebony jewelwings (Calopteryx maculata) are damselflies that can be found near shady streams banks and riparian areas. The adults have a metallic green or blue body and the males have black wings. The females’ wings are lighter in color and have a whitish spot on them. The adults can be seen from May through September, although an individual adult only lives for about 15–17 days. Once they mate, the eggs that are laid will hatch in one to three weeks and the larval stage or nymph stage will last anywhere from two months to three years.

A Smaller Kind of Hawk

Male eastern ponhawk dragonflies have a powdery-blue-colored body with green abdomens.
Male eastern ponhawk dragonflies have a powdery-blue-colored body with green abdomens.

The eastern pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) can be found along slow-moving streams, ponds and lakes. They have a similar period when adults can be seen, mid-May through October. 

As eastern pondhawks mature, the male’s body turns a powdery blue color with green on their abdomen. The wings are clear with black lines and black spots on the edge. The females are bright green with some dark-colored spots on the abdomen. The adults will eat just about anything they can catch, including horseflies and butterflies!

A Rare Migration

While many of the local species probably overwinter in the larval stage, there is one called the common green darner (Anax junius) that migrates! Scientists do not know much about this phenomenon, but often during the late summer/early fall, hundreds of dragonflies can be seen flying in a similar direction, usually ahead of a storm system. Scientists do know that the generation that makes its way south is not the same generation that returns the following spring.

Isn’t it amazing that there is still so much to learn about the natural world?

Amy Roell
Director of Programming