TNB Night Owl – Anisoptera

Hairy dragonfly (Brachytron pratense) male eating a bee, Koigi Bog, Saaremaa , Estonia. Photo by Charles J Sharp.

There are more than 3,000 species of Dragonflies worldwide, many of which are dazzling works of art. As insects go, they are often beautiful but it’s not their looks that are killer. They are among the most impressive insects for their physical abilities.

First and foremost, dragonflies are predators. However, they also play the role of prey throughout their lives. In their larval stage they live in water, eating almost anything including insect larvae, tadpoles, small fish, and each other. The larval or nymph stage may last a number of years depending on the species, during which time they grow, shed their skin, eat, grow, and shed their skin, repeating this cycle several times. The bigger the species, the longer the length of time they spend as water nymphs.

Once they become adults, they eat a variety of flying insects, which they catch in midair flight, including mosquitos, gnats, flies, bees, and other small insects. They possess powerful mandibles (for an insect, anyway) that allows them to quickly rip their prey apart and devour it.

Dragonflies’ huge compound eyes allow them to see in nearly all directions at once. Their only blind spot is directly behind them. Each eye has as many as 30,000 facets, and between 11 and 30 opsins (depending on the species). An opsin is a protein that absorbs a certain color of light. For context, humans have three opsins that allow us to see the primary colors red, green, blue (RGB). All other colors we perceive are a blend of these primary colors. Thus, humans have tri-chromatic vision. Compare that to the dragonfly’s 11 to 30 primary color receptors and try to imagine what the world looks like through their eyes!

Their two pair of wings are actually four wings that can move independently of the others. This allows them to hover motionless in the air or move rapidly in any direction whatsoever, including sideways and backwards. Their brains allow them to judge the trajectory of flying prey and zoom in for the kill, with a very high success rate. They should be good at it by now, they’ve had 300 million years to perfect their hunting skills.

Dragonflies lay their eggs in water, which you probably guessed. Surprisingly, the kind of water varies with the species. Most dragonfly species need fresh water, but there are some which actually prefer salt water. Highly unusual among insects.

Taxonomy/Classification:

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Odonata
Suborder: Epiprocta
Infraorder: Anisoptera

The infraorder is further divided into three families: Aeshnoidea, Cordulegastroidea, and Libelluloidea, which are subdivided into individual species, of which there are over 3,000 (as previously mentioned).

When I was a kid a was fascinated by dragonflies. They resembled tiny helicopters to me; little “Anisoptera helicoptera”. (Caution: not an officially sanctioned classification or name! Just a fun mnemonic device.)

Dragonflies have long been favorite art subjects around the world. In paintings, jewelry, statues, pottery, clay tiles, and many other materials and objects, dragonfly images abound.

Question of the night: What is your favorite kind of art?

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About Richard Doud 137 Articles
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