KQED Perspective series

By Michael Ellis

I am watching one. The head turns, giant multifaceted eyes rotate skyward, watching, waiting and suddenly he takes off, transparent wings glistening in the afternoon sun… flies upward and snags a giant crane fly and comes right back to the same exposed perch. Through binoculars I can see him chewing as the insect slowly disappears into the gut of the flame skimmer, one of 7 species of dragonflies that I have identified at my house in Santa Rosa. By the way, I can say “he” because this one is a male. And while it ain’t lions in the Serengeti, these fierce predators are fun to watch and helps keep my backyard clear of gnats, mosquitoes and flies and for that I am thankful.

Dragonflies and damselflies make up the order Odonatas, as this group of insects is called. Dragonflies have large eyes that often touch, they are big, robust fliers and when they land they keep their wings held straight out. Damselflies are smaller and more delicate, with clearly separate eyes and when they alight the wings are held together, up over the head. To those of us in the know they collectively are called od’s and when you go out searching for them, you are oding.

Dragonflies were the first animals to take to the air and 400 million years ago there was one with a wingspan of 2 feet! And while the dinosaurs came and went, dragonflies have remained relatively unchanged. There are now 4800 species in the world.

The first part of the ods lives are spent underwater. This nymph phase may last from 6 weeks to 6 years depending on the species. And let me tell you, these guys are the bad-asses of the pond bottom. They have a giant lower lip studded with teeth, which they use to lash out at unsuspecting prey. They eat fish, frogs, tadpoles, crawdads, other insects and even each other. When they emerge from the water, shed their skin, pump up their wings and take to the air, they may only live for 3 weeks as adults.

So what are you waiting for?? Get out to your local pond and begin oding.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.



Posted on

August 6, 2009