Odonata (dragonflies 1, 2, and damselflies)

Odonata fast facts

  • Large, with long bodies.
  • Large eyes with up to 30,000 ommatidia (facets).
  • Minute antennae.
  • Specialised mouthparts with strong teeth.
  • Legs end in a powerful pair of claws.
  • Two pairs of similar wings finely veined.
  • Both adult and nymph are predators. Nymphs aquatic and long lived.
  • 4,900 species worldwide, 130 European, 45 British Isles.
  • Hemimetabolous
  • Fossil record goes back over 300 million years.

Odonata, dragonflies, damselflies, are also sometimes known as horse stingers, devil's darning needle, which according to superstition will be used to sew up the lips of liars. They are divided into two sub-orders: Zygoptera, the damselflies, and Ansioptera, the true dragonflies.

Damsel flies usually have slimmer abdomens in both adults and nymphs. Both sub-orders usually fly during the day.

During the Permian there were huge dragonflies (with wingspans as large as that of a seagull today) to be found in what is now England. Meganeuropsis schusteri had a wingspan of 71 cm. The atmospheric oxygen concentration was 35% (today it is 21%), which may have allowed more oxygen to reach further down the tracheoles (breathing tubes). Also the oxygen-rich atmosphere would have made flying easier. At that time insects were the only flying animals. It is believed that the huge dragonflies were slower fliers that those of today.

Odonata Wings and flight

The 2 pairs of wings of the damselflies are alike, whereas the hind wings of the dragonflies are broader than the front wings (see Libellula depressa).

At rest damselflies hold their wings vertically over their body, whereas true dragonflies rest with their wings spread out.

In flight the wings operate independently, unlike those of other strong fliers, e.g. wasps and bees who link both wings together. Wind tunnel studies, partly financed by the U S Navy and Air Force, have found that they twist their wings on the down stroke. This creates miniature whirlwinds that move the air much faster over the upper wing surface, and so reduces air pressure and increase lift. Over short distances they can reach speeds of 70 kph/45 mph. They can hover, and fly backwards and forwards.

The venation of the wings is used in identification to species level, however there is disagreement between entomologists in naming the veins, so identification for a beginner is usually easiest using illustrations.