Dragonfly Larvae

Species in the suborder Anisoptera

Dragonfly_Larva_2-22-16.jpg

Photo of a dragonfly larva resting on a stone.
Dragonfly larvae are aquatic insects with large eyes, six legs, and an oval or rounded segmented abdomen.
Jim Rathert
Other Common Name
Dragonfly Nymphs
Family

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

Description

Dragonfly larvae (nymphs) are aquatic, usually drab, with 6 legs, large eyes, and small wing buds on the back of the thorax. 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. The lower jaw is scooplike and covers most of the bottom part of the head.

Adult 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.

Key Identifiers
  • Elongated or chunky aquatic insect, usually drab.
  • Six legs that are long and jointed.
  • Each leg with 2 claws.
  • Large eyes.
  • Small wing buds on the back of the thorax.
  • Abdomen often rounded or oval, segmented, often with 5 wedge-shaped or pointed structures at the hind end.
  • Lower jaw scooplike, covering most of the bottom part of the head.
  • There are no external feathery gills.
Size

Larva length: from ¼ to 2½ inches (varies with age and species).

Dragonfly_Larva_2-22-16.jpg

Photo of a dragonfly larva resting on a stone.
Dragonfly Larva (Nymph)
Dragonfly larvae are aquatic insects with large eyes, six legs, and an oval or rounded segmented abdomen.

Empty_dragonfly_shell_7-18-18.jpg

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.

Dragonfly_Larva_green_2-22-16.jpg

Photo of a dragonfly nymph, possibly a green darner, in an aquarium.
Dragonfly Larva (Nymph)
Dragonfly nymphs are lie-in-wait predators resting quietly on the substrate or on submerged plants.

Dragonfly_Larva_Nickel_2-22-16.jpg

Photo of a dragonfly nymph positioned next to a nickel for size.
Dragonfly Larva (Nymph)
The length of dragonfly larvae can be from ¼ to 2½ inches. It varies by species and by age; some of them live for a few years underwater before molting and becoming adults.

Dragonfly_Larva_Head_2-22-16.jpg

Photo of a dragonfly nymph, possibly a green darner, closeup of head.
Dragonfly Larva (Nymph)
These insects make look a little clumsy, but the jaws of dragonfly larvae can flash out like clawed arms to snatch up insects, even small fish, that happen by.

Dragonfly_Larva_jaws_2-22-16.jpg

Photo of a dragonfly larva, possibly a green darner, closeup on head.
Dragonfly Larva (Nymph)
If you were a small aquatic invertebrate, even a small fish, you would definitely not want to see this! Like adult dragonflies, juvenile dragonflies, called nymphs, are fierce predators — for their size.

Dragonfly_Larva_Palm_2-22-16.jpg

Photo of an algae-covered dragonfly larva in the palm of someone's hand.
Dragonfly Larva (Nymph)
Dragonfly nymphs occur in many aquatic habitats. They are especially common near clumps of aquatic vegetation or submerged tree roots. In still water, algae sometimes grows on their backs.

Dragonfly_Larva_Side_2-22-16.jpg

Photo of a dragonfly larva, three-quarter view.
Dragonfly Larva (Nymph)
It's easy to see the two scooplike halves of the jaws on this dragonfly nymph. They cover most of the bottom part of the head. These extend outward quickly to grab prey.

Dragonfly_Larva_Side_view_2-22-16.jpg

Photo of a dragonfly larva in an aquarium, seen from side.
Dragonfly Larva (Nymph)
Unlike the larvae of damselflies, dragonfly larvae have five wedge-shaped or pointed extensions at the tip of the abdomen. These are not gills.

Dragonfly_Larva_Ventral_2-23-16.jpg

Photo of a dragonfly larva in an aquarium, ventral view.
Dragonfly Larva (Nymph)
In dragonfly larvae, the gills are located inside the rectum. 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.

16-04-2012.jpg

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

Nymphs are common in many aquatic habitats. They are especially common near clumps of aquatic vegetation or submerged tree roots. Because they lay eggs in water, adults are usually found near water, though their fast, strong flight takes them many places.

Foods

Dragonfly nymphs are lie-in-wait predators resting quietly on the substrate or on submerged plants. 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. Adult dragonflies hold their legs in a basket shape during flight; they snatch up and eat small flying insects.

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

Adult male dragonflies 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 and can take a few years to mature. 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. It should be noted that dragonflies cannot sting. The larger species can deliver a pinching bite when handled, but they cannot harm people.

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.