Dragonflies

Species in the suborder Anisoptera

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Photo of a male Banded Pennant dragonfly
Banded Pennant, Male
Donna Brunet
Family

There are 8 North American families of dragonflies in the order Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies)

Description

Dragonflies have slender, elongated abdomens, robust bodies, and 2 pairs of wings that are usually outstretched horizontally. The wings are membranous and elaborately veined. The hindwing is wider at the base than the forewing. The eyes are compound, large, adjoin each other, and nearly cover the head. The antennae are short. The six legs are poor for walking but good for perching.

Larvae (nymphs) are aquatic, usually drab, with 6 legs and with small wing buds. Gills are located inside the rectum (unlike those of damselflies, which extend from the hind end like 3 leaflike tails). They breathe by drawing water in and out of their hind end. By forcefully expelling this water, the animal can move quickly in a form of jet propulsion.

To distinguish between the many types of dragonflies, note the details of wing vein patterns as well as colors and markings on wings and body. Wing details, for example, can include coloration of the pterostigma, a narrow cell along the leading edge of the forewing, which is often black, white, and/or brown, and thickened. Males and females often have different colors and markings. Subadults often have different markings, too.

Key Identifiers
  • Slender, elongated abdomen; robust body.
  • Often colorful; often with conspicuous blotches or spots on wings.
  • Two pairs of wings, usually outstretched horizontally.
  • Wings membranous, elaborately veined.
  • Hindwings are wider at their bases than the forewings.
  • Eyes are compound, large, adjoin each other, nearly cover the head.
  • Antennae short.
  • Often found near water.
Size

Adult length: from 1 to 3½ inches (varies with species).

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Photo of an empty dragonfly shell still clinging to a stick above water
Empty Dragonfly Shell
The shed, empty skins (exoskeletons) of larval dragonflies are left behind after the mature dragonfly emerges and flies away.

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photo of perched dragonfly
Dragonfly
Dragonflies have slender, elongated abdomens, robust bodies, and 2 pairs of wings that are usually outstretched horizontally.

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Photo of a Cobra Clubtail dragonfly
Cobra Clubtail
Cobra clubtail.

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Photo of a Common Green Darner dragonfly pair
Common Green Darner Pair
Common green darner.

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Photo of a spinyleg dragonfly, possibly a southeastern spinyleg clubtail, closeup.
A Spinyleg Clubtail Dragonfly
A Spinyleg Clubtail (Dromogomphus sp.).

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Photo of an Eastern Amberwing dragonfly, Male
Eastern Amberwing, Male
Eastern amberwing, male.

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Photo of an Eastern Amberwing dragonfly, female
Eastern Amberwing, Female
Eastern amberwing, female.

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Photo of an Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, male
Eastern Pondhawk, Male
Eastern pondhawk, male.

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Photo of an Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, female
Eastern Pondhawk, Female
Eastern pondhawk, female.

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Photo of a slaty skimmer dragonfly, male.
Slaty Skimmer, Male
Slaty skimmer, male.

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Photo of a Slaty Skimmer dragonfly, female
Slaty Skimmer, Female
Slaty skimmer (female).

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Photo of a Spangled Skimmer dragonfly, male
Spangled Skimmer, Male
Spangled skimmer, male.

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Photo of a Spangled Skimmer dragonfly, female
Spangled Skimmer, Female
Spangled skimmer, female.

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Photo of a Widow Skimmer dragonfly, male
Widow Skimmer, Male
Widow skimmer, male.

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Photo of a Widow Skimmer dragonfly, female
Widow Skimmer, Female
Widow skimmer, female.

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Photo of a male eastern amberwing dragonfly.
Male Eastern Amberwing
Eastern amberwing, male.

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Photo of a Hine's emerald dragonfly
Hine's Emerald Dragonfly
Hine's emerald.

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Photo of a Hine's emerald dragonfly, closeup.
Hine's Emerald Dragonfly
Hine's emerald.
Habitat and conservation

Nymphs are common in many aquatic habitats. Because they lay eggs in water, adults are usually near water, too, though their fast, strong flight takes them many places.

Foods

The hunting behavior of adult dragonflies is called “hawking.” Their legs are held in a basket shape during flight, which is perfect for grasping mosquitoes and other small flying insects. The hunting of the nymphs is more bizarre; they are typically lie-in-wait predators resting quietly on the substrate. When a potential meal swims or walks near, the nymph’s extendable jaws flash outward to snatch and draw in the food, which can be any small aquatic animal or even the claw of an equal-sized crayfish.

image of Dragonflies Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

There are many species of dragonflies in our state, ranging from very common to unusual to rare to in danger of disappearing. Nine Missouri dragonflies are Species of Conservation Concern: bayou clubtail, midland clubtail, skillet clubtail, golden-winged skimmer, brimstone clubtail, elusive clubtail, Hine's emerald, Ozark emerald, and treetop emerald. Hine's emerald is Endangered in Missouri and is the only dragonfly that is Federally Endangered.

Life cycle

Males commonly perch on branches or other objects, patrolling their territories, driving away rival males, and attempting to mate with females. Mating pairs usually fly in tandem. The female usually flies low over the water, depositing eggs directly on the surface. Larvae (nymphs) undergo several molts as they grow. When ready, they crawl out of the water to a safe place, shed their skin, and emerge as a young adult. In the next days or week, they complete their maturation.

Human connections

Anyone who dislikes mosquitoes can appreciate dragonflies! Dragonflies are also admired for their beautiful forms. In case you are wondering, dragonflies cannot sting. The larger species can deliver a pinching bite when handled, but they cannot harm people. In old-time Ozark dialect, large dragonflies, especially green darners, were called "katynippers" and "snake feeders."

Ecosystem connections

Most of a dragonfly’s life is spent as a nymph. Some species live for 5 years underwater before becoming adults. They and the adult forms are important predators of mosquitoes, midges, and other small insects. The nymphs are important food for fish and other aquatic insectivores.