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Pond Dragons

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

Adult dragonflies catch people's attention. This is especially true when there are lots of them flying at once, circling and swooping around a pond.

Dragonflies are excellent fliers that seem to be performing acrobatics. Once the weather is warm, you should be able to see them flying all day and into the early evening.

Dragonflies live as aquatic insects before maturing into flying insects. Weather changes influence how long dragonflies live. Most of our species complete their life cycle in one year. A few, especially those species that lay their eggs in temporary water, mature quickly and emerge as adults in less than a year, as long as the is warm.

Some of our larger species may need more than 12 months to mature before they emerge from the water. Those that live in streams without any flow during portions of the year also may take longer.

Dragonflies are predators, both when immature in the water and as adults on the wing. Adults catch and eat their food as they fly. Only occasionally do they need to land to eat. Usually they eat small insects, but sometimes you can see them catch a butterfly or a cicada.

Immature dragonflies, as do all insects, shed their skin as they grow larger. When they are ready to transform into adults, they climb above the water before breaking out of that last skin. Some will climb up plant stems; you may find the skins they leave behind on cattails, or other plants.

Some stream dwelling dragonflies may crawl out onto tree branches before they emerge as adults. Some species transform into adults on gravel or sand bars near the water's edge.

Newly emerged adults need time to inflate their wings so they can harden enough to fly. Just after emerging, an adult dragonfly is extremely vulnerable. Predators, including insect eating birds, consume many of them, leaving behind nothing but their bright shiny wings.

At least 65 species of dragonflies live in Missouri. A determined search of the state will likely uncover more species. Many of our common dragonflies live throughout the state, but a few species are restricted to only parts of Missouri. The Ozarks region contains the most species. The specialized habitats there also support a greater variety of species. In addition, more dragonfly surveys have been conducted in this region of the state.

We have our resident dragonflies, but we expect to see a few strays each year. These are species that typically live in other parts of the country but occasionally turn up here. One theory on how they end up so far from home is that approaching storms blow them to new areas.

Dragonflies are insects in the order Odonata, a primitive order that has not changed much through time. Fossils exist of dragonflies that lived at the same time as dinosaurs, and they are similar to those we see today, although usually larger. Dragonflies have three body segments: head, thorax and abdomen. Their bulging eyes may be bright blue or green or multicolored. The wings and legs are attached to a thorax thick with the muscles needed to work them. Dragonfly abdomens are usually long and large enough to see the color patterns that help us identify different species.

Darners, emeralds and skimmers are the adult dragonflies typically associated with Missouri ponds. The darners are in the Aeshnidae family. These large dragonflies live in ponds or other standing water. Emeralds are in the Coduliidae family. These medium- or small-size dragonflies are found in ponds or lakes. Skimmers are in the Libellulidae family. We have more species of this family than any other, and most of them live in ponds or other standing water.

Darners are large colorful dragonflies. They are often the dragonflies you see earliest and latest in the season.

Common green darners, Anax junius, are often the first dragonflies to emerge each year and one of the last you see in the fall. You may see them flying over ponds, lakes and nearby fields. They are almost 3 inches long with about a 4-inch wingspan. If you look down on its head just in front of the eyes, you can see a bulls-eye pattern. The thorax is solid green. Newly emerged adults have a reddish abdomen. Older males will be blue with darker brown on the top of the abdomen, while the older females become green on the sides and brown on top.

These darners live throughout Missouri and the rest of the United States, and in many Canadian provinces and south into Mexico and Puerto Rico. Juveniles live in ponds and lakes of all sizes. They climb up plant stems at the water's edge to emerge as adults.

Adult common green darners often fly high, which makes for great dragonfly watching. In late summer and fall you may see them flying around yards or parks, far from water. This species migrates in the fall as the weather cools.

Comet darners, Anax longipes, are a little larger. Mature males have a red abdomen, but they lack the bulls-eye pattern on the head of the newly emerged common green darners. Comet darners are fairly rare and have been collected only in the Ozarks. Juveniles usually live only in ponds that have water all year long but contain no fish.

Emeralds are rare but those that live in ponds are easy to find. Several members of this family are famous for their bright green eyes.

Look for the prince baskettails, Epitheca princeps, most of the summer. They have dark spots at the base, middle and tip of each wing. The color varies in different individuals. As a general rule, the farther north the less color. Prince baskettails are about 2 inches long and have 3-inch wingspans. As with many species in this family, the abdomen is slender and narrows into a waist. Get close enough and you can see that the thorax is hairy. Males and females look alike, except for their eyes. Adult males have bright green eyes, while the females have dark brown eyes.

These dragonflies live throughout Missouri, the eastern half of the United States and several Canadian provinces. The nymphs live in lakes, larger ponds and medium-size streams.

Two smaller baskettails also live in ponds but fly only in the spring and early summer. The stripe-winged baskettail, Epitheca costalis, and common baskettail, Epitheca cynosura, are difficult to tell apart. Both have a small dark spot at the base of their wings and a relatively slender abdomen.

Skimmersinclude some familiar dragonflies. Species vary greatly in color and size, making it difficult to generalize about the family.

Widow skimmers, Libelulla luctosa, are common near ponds. They are thick bodied, as are most skimmers, and have a broad band of dark color at the base of their wings. Males have a white band across the middle of the wings that gets more noticeable as they mature.

Females are gold along the sides of the abdomen. Newly emerged males also have some gold along the sides of their abdomen, but their body will take on a powdery white appearance. Skimmers are 3 inches long and have a 3-inch wingspan.

This skimmer lives throughout Missouri and most other states, as well as in a few Canadian provinces and south into Mexico. Juveniles live in ponds and lakes of all sizes and in the slower parts of streams.

Newly emerged adults tend to fly toward fields and woodland edges, where they spend about two weeks feeding and maturing before returning to the water. Widow skimmers often perch vertically about halfway up plant stems. Females fly up and down, dipping the end of their abdomen into the water to wash their eggs. Males hover above egg-depositing females.

The common whitetail, Libelulla lydia, is easy to find. Males and females have different color patterns on the wings that may lead you to believe they are different species. The males have an elongate dark spot at the base and a wide band of dark color across the middle of each wing.

Females have dark spots at the base, middle and tip of each wing. Mature males have a powdery white abdomen, while females and newly emerged males have dark abdomens with light colored dashes along the sides.

Common whitetails are up to 2 inches long with a wingspan of just over 2 inches. They live in all 48 states, several Canadian provinces and south into Mexico. The juveniles live in ponds and lakes of all sizes, as well as in the slower parts of streams.

They seem to prefer to land on flat ground, roads or boat docks. It's easy to walk up on them slowly and take a good look. Mating takes only about 3 seconds for the common whitetail.

Twelve-spotted skimmers, Libelulla pulchella, also are common. They have three dark spots on each wing-a total of 12. Males and females are similar in color, but mature males have white spots between the dark ones on the wings, while the abdomens of females are dark with a continuous line of light dashes along the sides. These dragonflies are a little over 2 inches long with a 3-inch wingspan.

Twelve spotted skimmers fly rapidly and change directions quickly. They often fly high, unless defending territory or laying eggs. Twelve-spotted skimmers live throughout the state, as well as in all 48 states and several Canadian provinces.

Eastern pondhawk, Erythemis simplicicollis, females and newly emerged males have green and dark brown bodies. Mature males are blue. They change color starting at the abdomen then progressing forward.

During the summer you can see males that are still green and black, those that are all blue and some that are changing. Both males and females have green eyes. These are medium-size dragonflies about 1 inch long with a 2-inch wingspan.

These dragonflies live throughout the state and much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States, in some of the Canadian provinces and south into Mexico and Jamaica. Considered a ferocious dragonfly, eastern pondhawks occasionally eat one another. They land flat on plant leaves floating on the surface of a pond.

The blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, is common around ponds. The males have blue abdomens, while the females are darker with pairs of golden dashes lined up on the top of the abdomen. Males have blue eyes, and females have brown eyes.

These dragonflies range from 1 to 2 inches long with wingspans of 2 to 3 inches.

The bright blue eyes of mature males makes them easy to spot as they fly near pond banks. If another male enters a blue dasher's territory it will raise its abdomen and fly towards the invader.

Blue dashers live throughout the state and most of the United States and in several Canadian provinces and several states in Mexico. These dragonflies perch on twigs near the water but fly high into the trees if they are disturbed.

Black saddlebags, Tramea lacerata, are high flying and wary dragonflies. One of our larger dragonflies, they often fly far away from the water, where the nymph lives. They are 2 inches long and have a wingspan that is just over 3 inches. The black band of color at the base of the wings is distinctive for this species. The edge of this band is jagged and follows the lines of some of the veins in the wing.

They live throughout Missouri and much of the United States, and in a few Canadian provinces and south into Mexico and Cuba. You can see them flying away from the water, including over roadways.

Pennants are small, colorful members of the skimmer family. You may see more than one species at the same pond. Pennants get their name from their habit of perching at the tips of plant stalks, reminding you of a small flag.

Halloween pennants, Celithemis eponina, are strikingly orange. These dragonflies have a dark band completely across the wing near their middle. They don't have dark color at the tip of the wing.

Calico pennants, Celithemis elisa, are slightly smaller and redder, and the dark band does not extend across the wing. Mature male calico pennants are red and females are orange.

Although they stay fairly close to the water, they are visible when they perch on the tips of plant stalks. Calico pennants are up to an inch long with a wingspan of just under 2 inches.

You also might encounter banded pennants, Celithemis fasciata. These have black wing markings similar to the calicos. Banded pennants are slightly larger, about an inch long with a wingspan of just under 3 inches.

Eastern amberwings, Perithemis tenera, are the smallest dragonflies we have in Missouri. They are just under an inch long with a wingspan of under an inch. Males have solid amber wings, while females have dark spots on their wings with just a little amber between the spots. Their bodies are thick and dark red with a subdued pattern. When they are resting, they blend into the background so well they are difficult to see. That is probably advantageous, because eastern amberwings often fall prey to other dragonflies.

Eastern amberwings inhabit the entire state and most of the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. They fly close to the surface of the water. If you see a male swaying from side to side as he flies behind a female, he is inviting her to the territory he is defending. If they mate, she returns to that site to lay her eggs.

Wandering gliders, Pantala flavescens, and spot-winged gliders, Pantala hymenaea, often fly together. You can distinguish spot-winged gliders by the spot at the base of the hind wing.

These dragonflies have tan to reddish bodies with a checkered pattern of lighter and darker colors on their abdomen. Wandering gliders travel worldwide; individuals have landed on ships at sea many miles from shore. Their 3-inch wingspan makes flying easier.

Adults seek temporary water, such as flooded crop fields and isolated pools left along rivers after floods, when they are ready to lay eggs.

Both gliders live throughout the state. The waters of the southeastern lowlands of Missouri produce uncountable thousands of these gliders in the warmer months.

Missouri's dragonflies are easy to spot at ponds and lakes. The more time you spend near water, the better your chances of glimpsing these insects. If you sit real still, some will fly close by or land near you, and you can study them up close.

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