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Common Name: Dragonflies and Damselflies

Greek Origins of Name:  Odonata, derived from the Greek “odonto-“, meaning tooth, refers to the strong teeth found on the mandibles of most adults.

Spot ID Key Characters:

  1. Rectangular stigma (pigmented patch) near tip of each wing
  2. Large compound eyes
  3. Short, bristle-like antennae
  4. In DAMSELFLIES, front and hind wings are stalked (narrow at the base) and similar in size and shape
  5. In DRAGONFLIES, hind wings have an enlarged anal region (broader toward the base than front wings)

Spot ID Common Families:

Dragonflies (suborder Anisoptera)

Damselflies (suborder Zygoptera)


Hemimetabola,  i.e. incomplete metamorphosis (egg, nymph, adult);  immatures are aquatic (naiads)


Paleoptera, primitive wing structure and venation lacking the ability to fold the wings over the back.
Two suborders:
1. Zygoptera (damselflies) — front and hind wings are similar in shape
2. Anisoptera (dragonflies) — hind wings are broader near the base than the front wings


Common worldwide.   Third largest order of insects, with approximately 11 families and 407 species in North America and 29 families and >5000 species worldwide

Life History and Ecology:

Dragonflies and damselflies are predaceous both as immatures and adults.   The adults are quick, agile fliers that are generally considered beneficial because they feed on large numbers of small, flying insects like gnats and mosquitos.   Legs are used either as a basket for catching prey or as grapples for clinging to emergent vegetation.   Eggs are laid singly in fresh water; females often hover over open water and dip their abdomen as they oviposit.

Eggs hatch into aquatic immatures (naiads) that feed opportunistically on other forms of aquatic life including mayfly naiads, small crustaceans, annelids, and mollusks.   Some of the large dragonfly naiads will even attack small fish and tadpoles.   All immature Odonata have a specialized labium for catching prey.   Folded under the head and thorax when not in use, the labium can be extended rapidly toward potential prey.   Hooked lobes at the tip of the labium grasp or impale the prey and draw it back to the mouth as the labium retracts.

Damselfly naiads are usually more slender than dragonfly naiads and have three leaf-like gills at the end of the abdomen.   Dragonfly gills are located internally, within the rectum, where bellows-like contractions of the rectal muscles cause oxygenated water to circulate in and out.

Appearance of Dragonflies:


  1. Labial “mask” adapted for catching prey
  2. Body robust


  1. Antennae short and bristle-like
  2. Compound eyes large, often covering most of the head
  3. Four membranous wings with many veins and crossveins
  4. Base of hind wing broader than forewing
  5. One distinctively pigmented cell (stigma) on leading edge of wing
  6. Abdomen:  long and slender

Appearance of Damselflies:


  1. Labial “mask” adapted for catching prey
  2. Three leaf-like gills at rear of abdomen
  3. Body usually long and slender


  1. Antennae short and bristle-like
  2. Compound eyes large, often covering most of the head
  3. Four membraneous wings with many veins and crossveins
  4. Base of wings narrow, stalk-like
  5. One distinctively pigmented cell (stigma) on leading edge of wing
  6. Abdomen:  long and slender

Economic Importance:

Most dragonflies and damselflies are regarded as beneficial insects because they feed on small flying insects such as mosquitoes.   They may also catch and eat honey bees — then they are regarded as pests by the beekeepers.

In some parts of Europe, dragonflies are considered a threat to the poultry industry because they transmit Prosthogonimus pellucidus,a parasitic flatworm.   Dragonfly naiads become infected by ingesting cysts of the flatworm.   These cysts survive into adulthood of the dragonfly and may spread to birds (particularly poultry) that catch and eat the adult dragonflies.   The flatworm cysts dissolve in the bird’s intestine and infection spreads into the cloaca and reproductive organs.   The Dutch have a maxim: “Hide the hens, the dragonflies are coming.”

Major Families:


      • Aeshnidae (Darners) — These insects are notable for their large size and brilliant blue or green coloration.  Includes the common green darner (Anax junius).
      • Libellulidae (Common Skimmers) — This is the largest family in the order.  It contains many species with dark spots on the wings.
      • Gomphidae (Clubtails) — These dragonflies have the terminal abdominal segments swollen, hence the common name.


      • Calopterygidae (Broadwinged Damselflies) — The wings of these insects are shaped like the seeds of a maple tree.
      • Coenagrionidae (Narrowwinged Damselflies) — Small, delicate insects.  The body is usually black with blue markings.  At rest, the wings are held together over the back.
      • Lestidae (Spreadwinged Damselflies) — These damselflies rest with the body nearly vertical and the wings partly outspread.

Fun Facts:

  • The compound eyes of some dragonflies may have up to 28,000 facets.
  • Some naiads can shoot out their labium and catch prey in only 25 milliseconds.
  • Scientists have documented large-scale migrations of dragonflies.  One swarm was observed 1,400 km off the coast of Australia.
  • Some immature damselflies establish feeding territories, areas that are defended against invasion by other conspecifics.  Territorial species develop more rapidly and produce larger adults than other non-territorial species.
  • Many adult male dragonflies establish and defend territories along the perimeter of a lake or stream.  Females will mate only with males that hold a territory, so population density is somewhat regulated by territory size.
  • Male Odonata have claspers at the end of their abdomen, but no external genitalia.  Before finding a mate, a male attaches a spermatophore to his second abdominal segment.  He then grabs a female around the neck with his claspers and she retrieves the spermatophore with the genital opening of her abdomen.
  • Most dragonfly naiads can move forward by “jet propulsion”.  Rapid contraction of the rectal muscles forces water out the rear end and shoots the insect forward.
  • Male damselflies (and perhaps some dragonflies) have a special flagellum associated with the copulatory organ that can reach into a female’s body and remove sperm deposited by another male in a previous mating.
  • Dragonflies are known by many interesting common names, including “snake doctors”, “devil’s darning needles”, and “mosquito hawks”.

In Japan, this dragonfly (Boninthemis insularis) is known as “Shimaakane”. The Japanese government offically designated this species a national landmark on March 12, 1969. This stamp (one of four in a set illustrating insects) was issued on September 14, 1977.