Dragonflies

Species in the suborder Anisoptera

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Photo of a male Banded Pennant dragonfly
The banded pennant, Celithemis fasciata, is a small dragonfly (to about 1½ inch long) with distinctive black markings and reddish eyes.
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 elaborately winged wings that are usually outstretched horizontally.

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Photo of a Cobra Clubtail dragonfly
Cobra Clubtail
The cobra clubtail, Gomphus vastus, is in the family of dragonflies called clubtails, named for the enlarged abdomen tip. There are about 100 species in this dragonfly family in North America north of Mexico, and more than 900 in the world.

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A spinyleg dragonfly, possibly a southeastern spinyleg clubtail, closeup.
Spinyleg Clubtail Dragonfly
This dragonfly is one of the spinyleg clubtail species (in the genus Dromogomphus). It may be a southeastern spinyleg (D. armatus), based on the black patterns on the thorax.

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Newly emerged adult pronghorn clubtail dragonfly perched on a grass stem
Pronghorn Clubtail, Newly Emerged Adult
Pronghorn clubtail freshly emerged adult. Dragonflies are quite pale when they first emerge from their nymphal form. This individual will soon darken considerably.

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Photo of an Eastern Amberwing dragonfly, Male
Eastern Amberwing, Male
The eastern amberwing, Perithemis tenera, is a tiny species of dragonfly that only reaches about 1 inch in length. Each of the four amber-colored wings has a red spot on the outer leading edge. Males have clear amber wings.

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Photo of an Eastern Amberwing dragonfly, female
Eastern Amberwing, Female
The eastern amberwing, Perithemis tenera, is a tiny species of dragonfly that only reaches about 1 inch in length. Each of the four amber-colored wings has a red spot on the outer leading edge. Females have blotch-patterned wings.

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Common green darner dragonfly perched on a dried flowering stalk, viewed from above
Common Green Darner On Dried Flowering Stalk
The common green darner (Anax junius) is abundant and well-known for its bright green, blue, and purple colors. A large dragonfly up to 3 inches long, it is a migratory species that travels south in autumn.

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Photo of an Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, male
Eastern Pondhawk, Male
The eastern pondhawk, Erythemis simplicicollis, is in the large family of dragonflies called skimmers. Older males have a blue abdomen and green face. Sparring males engage in fascinating aerial maneuvers.

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Photo of an Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly, female
Eastern Pondhawk, Female
The eastern pondhawk, Erythemis simplicicollis, is in the large family of dragonflies called skimmers. Females and young males are green with black abdomen spots. The ovipositor (egg-laying organ) on this female is visible below the tip of her abdomen.

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Male blue dasher dragonfly perched on the tip of a twig, with dew on its wings
Blue Dasher Male
A mature blue dasher male (Pachydiplax longipennis) has a blue body with a dark abdomen tip, white face, turquoise eyes. The thorax has slanted black and yellow stripes. The wings have an amber cast on the hindwing bases.

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Photo of a slaty skimmer dragonfly, male.
Slaty Skimmer, Male
The slaty skimmer, Libellula incesta, has a body about 2 inches long. Older males are all slate blue with black heads.

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Photo of a Slaty Skimmer dragonfly, female
Slaty Skimmer, Female
Female and young male slaty skimmers have brown abdomens and a dark stripe running down the back.

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Photo of a Spangled Skimmer dragonfly, male
Spangled Skimmer, Male
The spangled skimmer, Libellula cyanea, grows to nearly 2 inches long. Each of the 4 wings has a white spot beside a black spot on the outer leading edge. Males are blue with a dark head.

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Photo of a Spangled Skimmer dragonfly, female
Spangled Skimmer, Female
Female spangled skippers are dark brown with lengthwise yellow stripes, and darkish wingtips. Like the males, each of the 4 wings has a white spot beside a black spot on the outer leading edge, making it look spangled.

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Photo of a Widow Skimmer dragonfly, male
Widow Skimmer, Male
The widow skimmer, Libellula luctuosa, has distinctive dark wing markings that seem like mourning garb. Mature males have white areas in the center of their wings, beside the dark patches.

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Photo of a Widow Skimmer dragonfly, female
Widow Skimmer, Female
Females and young male wido skimmers usually have brownish wingtips, and the abdomen has a brown stripe down the center flanked by two yellow stripes.

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Photo of a Hine's emerald dragonfly
Hine's Emerald Dragonfly
The Hine's emerald dragonfly is endangered in Missouri and is the only dragonfly that is federally endangered.

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Photo of a Hine's emerald dragonfly, closeup.
Hine's Emerald Dragonfly
The Hine's emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) is endangered. It lives in calcareous spring-fed marshes and sedge meadows overlaying dolomite bedrock. Habitat destruction and degradation due to urban and industrial development has been its greatest problem.

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Female adult baskettail dragonfly perched on a plant stem
Baskettail Dragonfly Female
Baskettails are dragonflies in genus Epitheca. There are about 10 species in North America. Females carry egg masses at the tip of the abdomen, using an upturned structure specially adapted for the purpose.

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Black saddlebags dragonfly perched on an upright twig
Black Saddlebags
The black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata) is a skimmer dragonfly with distinctive, and memorable, dark markings on the hindwings.

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Newly emerged adult black saddlebags dragonfly perched on a smartweed flowerhead
Black Saddlebags Newly Emerged
Dragonflies typically are quite pale when they first emerge from their nymphal skin. This black saddlebags will soon become much darker.

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Calico pennant dragonfly perched on a twig
Calico Pennant (Male)
The calico pennant (Celithemis elisa) is a beautifully marked dragonfly. Males have pink wing veins, and bright red heart-shaped spots on the abdomen.

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Halloween pennant perched on the tip of a dried flowering stalk
Halloween Pennant
The Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina) is one of the more common members of its genus. Distinctive wing markings include a complete brown band (not just a spot) just short of the wing tip.

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Male twelve-spotted skimmer perched on a plant stalk
Twelve-Spotted Skimmer
The twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella) has twelve brown wing spots. Males, like this one, have eight more spots that are white.

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Male common whitetail dragonfly perched on a twig
Common Whitetail Male
The mature male common whitetail (Plathemis lydia) looks quite different than the female. Note the chalky white abdomen and single broad dark band per wing.

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Female common whitetail dragonfly perched on a weathered wooden surface
Common Whitetail Female
The female common whitetail (Plathemis lydia) has a brown body with a line of pale triangular marks on each side of the abdomen. Each wing has 3 evenly spaced dark blotches.

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Male blue corporal dragonfly resting on a weathered wooden surface
Blue Corporal Male
The male blue corporal has a rather dark blue body, a black head, and dark marks at the wing bases.
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.