Originally published October 2009
Hello everyone, I hope you have recovered from the whirlwind ride that was our Summer and are now enjoying the odd glorious day with which the later months can delight us! On days such as these I have, until quite recently, been enjoying a spot of Damsels and Dragons.
Not membership of a latter day Chivalric Order chasing around the countryside slaying Firedrakes and doing goodly deeds; nor yet addiction to the latest ‘Sword and Sorcery’ game on one of the children’s many electronic devices! No, I am referring to those beautifully bejewelled members of those ancient and venerable families Coenagiidae and Aeshnidae both of whom belong to the Grand Order Ordonata.
If elucidation has not come flashing out of the sky with lightning bolt clarity, then let me put you out of your misery. I am of course talking about Damselflies and Dragonflies, those darting streaks of eldritch colour that light up our pond areas throughout the Summer and early Autumn. What’s more, they have been lighting up the world since the Carboniferous Era, about 350 million years ago. That dates them about 150 million years before the dinosaurs started blundering about and causing havoc! The ancestor of our dragonflies was one of the very first flying creatures on the planet and apart from having a wingspan of 60 to 75cms, looked very much like their descendents do today. So if you are strolling through our little reserve, enjoying the sight of our Fabulous Ferns on the rock face and glimpse the dragonflies skimming over the water, you may actually find yourself converted to the notion of time travel!
What many people don’t realise is that the iridescent creature seen flying around is actually the geriatric stage of the dragonfly.
Most of its six or seven year life (in the case of the larger species) is spent as a ferocious juvenile under water, only leaving its aquatic nursery to be a winged adult for a maximum of four months. If you look at the stems and leaves of plants emerging from the pond, you may come across a strange alien looking creature clinging to the leaf, seemingly just climbing from the water. On closer inspection you will notice that this nightmare from the deep is actually just a shell (albeit complete down to the very last detail) or to give it its proper biological name exuviae (derived from the french word exuere – to divest oneself). Look closely and the beastly remains will provide you with a clue as to how its occupant escaped its juvenile armour. A small hole at the back of the shell’s head is all that’s required for the adult dragonfly to make good its escape. It squeezes through the gap with the consumate ease of Harry Houdini himself, during a process called ecdysis (from the Greek ekdusis – put off).
Up to this point, the larvae has prowled the watery depths as a voracious, carniverous nymph feasting on anything it can capture including tadpoles, small newts and fish fry! The secret to its success as a hunter lies in the way it uses the pincer-like extension of its lower jaw to lunge forward with frightening speed and accuracy. Sounds familiar? Have you ever watched Alien?
Damselflies have a similar upbringing but everything is done on a smaller scale being smaller creatures with a shorter lifespan than their Dragon cousins.
Once above water and buzzing around, there are some marked differences between the two which aid identification: firstly, where you spot them – Damsels are weaker fliers and are rarely spotted very far from water; secondly, size – in this country at least, Dragons tend to be bigger and bulkier than Damsels and thirdly, like all true villains, Dragons’ eyes are too close together, so close in fact that they often overlap! Probably the easiest way to recognise one from t’other though is to watch them at rest. As their names suggest, true Dragonflies spread their wings out when they perch, whilst their more demure relatives fold theirs along the sides of their bodies.
There is one more bit of categorisation to be done when talking about Dragonflies; but don’t worry no lovely Latin names this time! Dragons fall into two main groups, darters and hawkers..The former, being a shorter, fatter insect, tends to perch somewhere giving them a good vantage point to spy their prey and dart (not all nomenaclature is complicated!) out when it is in easy range. Hawkers are long and thin, patrolling the airways and swooping down on their prey. Both darters and hawkers are excellent flying machines, reaching hunting speeds of close on 30mph. They are an admirable example of a 350 million year old unbroken model which Mother Nature has not deemed it necessary to fix.
So there we have it, Latin, Greek even French, and a timescale taking us from pre-dinosaur times to the age of digitally created monsters on the big screen. Humbled by an insect? We certainly ought to be!
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Image 2: Dragonfly exuviae by Tom Potterfield, used under Creative Commons License 2.0 / Image 3: [Dragonfly] I spy a dragon fly by John K, used under CC2.0 / Image 4: Damselfly Argia cupraurea (male) by Pavel Kirillov, used under CC2.0