Fast, Fierce, and Fluttery

By Matt Seek | artwork by Dave Besenger | June 1, 2014
From Xplor: June/July 2014

Dragonflies aren’t dragons of course, but they’re just as awesome. They fly so perfectly that NASA and the U.S. military have studied them in hopes of making aircraft more nimble. Dragonflies see better than possibly any other creature on Earth. And, dragonflies are one of the deadliest hunters alive, catching more of the prey they go after than lions, crocodiles, and great white sharks. Best of all, unlike the fire-breathing variety of dragons, these dragons are real. You can find them patrolling nearly any pond, stream, or marsh in Missouri. So what are you waiting for? Get outside and find some fast, fierce, and fluttery dragonflies!

But First, Make This Field Guide

  1. Cut out the next two pages along the dotted lines.
  2. Fold each cut-out down the middle.
  3. Stack the cut-outs so the pages are in numerical order.
  4. Staple the cut-outs together along the middle between pages 8 and 9.
  5. Take your mini field guide to the nearest pond, stream, or marsh.

How Dragonflies Grow Up

  • A dragonfly begins life as a tiny egg about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
  • In a few days or a few months — it varies by the kind of dragonfly — a tiny nymph hatches out. While it’s a nymph, the dragonfly lives underwater. The nymph sheds its hard, outer shell several times. With each molt, the nymph gets a little bigger.
  • It takes an hour or two for the dragonfly’s new body to harden. Once it’s able to fly, the adult dragonfly sneaks off to a grassy meadow or shady forest. After a few weeks, it returns to a pond, stream, or marsh to mate.
  • When the nymph is ready to change into an adult, it crawls out of the water and sinks its claws into a cattail or reed. The nymph’s skin splits open, and an adult dragonfly wiggles out.

Anatomy of an Assassin

  • Dragonflies might be the deadliest hunters in the animal kingdom. Studies have shown they catch nearly 95 percent of the prey they chase. Here’s what makes them such perfect insect-killing machines.
  • About half of a dragonfly’s weight is made up of strong muscles that power its wings. Dragonflies can carry twice their body weight while flying.
  • Each of a dragonfly’s wings can move separately from the others. This allows a dragonfly to rocket straight up, hover like a helicopter, make hairpin turns, zip backwards, dart forwards, stop on a dime, and fly upside-down.
  • Spiny legs snag prey that a dragonfly can’t catch with its mouth.
  • Each huge, compound eye has 10,000 to 30,000 lenses. Dragonflies can see in nearly all directions at once.
  • Dragonflies rely on sight alone to catch prey. More than 80 percent of a dragonfly’s brain is used to make sense of what it sees.
  • Three simple eyes help a dragonfly sense how its body is turned while flying.
  • Toothed lower jaws catch, crunch, and munch prey. A bite to the head stops large prey from struggling.

Dragonfly vs. Damselfly

Dragonflies and damselflies are closely related and look a lot alike. Here’s how to tell them apart.


  • Thick, stocky body
  • Eyes nearly touch in the center of its head
  • When perched, holds its wings flat like a moth
  • Zips and darts when it flies


  • Slender, dainty body
  • Eyes on the side of its head with space in between
  • When perched, folds its wings together like a butterfly
  • Flits and flutters when it flies

What’s That Dragonfly Doing?

Dragonflies do all sorts of interesting things. Try to spot these behaviors when you’re out dragonfly watching.

  • Hunting — Some dragonflies hunt from a tall perch that offers a good view. They lift off every so often to pluck unlucky insects from the air. Other dragonflies patrol prey-rich areas, flying back and forth for hours to ambush unwary insects.
  • Grooming — Dragonflies clean themselves like fussy cats, using spines on their legs to comb debris from their bodies.
  • Defending Territories — Male dragonflies lay claim to locations that have lots of food, many mates, and good places to lay eggs. You often see males chasing other males out of these territories.
  • Egg Laying — If you see a dragonfly tapping its tummy into the water as it flies, it’s likely a female laying eggs. Some females have a bladelike organ on their abdomens that they use to slice open plant stems so they can stuff eggs inside.
  • Flying Together — If you see a dragonfly towing another around, the one in front is a male, and the one behind is a female. Dragonflies flying together are getting ready to mate or lay eggs.
  • Basking — Dragonflies are cold-blooded and must warm up their flight muscles before they can fly. On cool mornings, dragonflies lie on rocks and other flat surfaces to soak up sunshine.
  • Roosting — Dragonflies aren’t night owls. They go down when the sun goes down and find a dense shrub or tree in which to spend the night.

Common Green Darner

  • Flight Season: April to October
  • Habitat: Lakes, ponds, marshes, and slow streams

The green darner is one of the world’s fastest insects, reaching speeds of 35 miles per hour while flying.

Some green darners migrate south in the fall. Offspring of these dragonflies migrate north the following spring. Sometimes green darners group together to hunt in swarms. This is probably a mosquito’s worst nightmare.

Eastern Pondhawk

  • Flight Season: May to October
  • Habitat: Nearly any body of water with floating plants

Pondhawks might be Missouri’s fiercest dragonflies. They often attack prey that’s as big as or bigger than they are, including other dragonflies.

Pondhawks are known to follow cattle and horses to feast on insects stirred up by the large mammals.

Eastern Amberwing

  • Flight Season: May to September
  • Habitat: Muddy ponds, lake shores, and slow streams; often hunts in weedy fields and open woodlands

With a body less than an inch long, the eastern amberwing is Missouri’s smallest dragonfly.

When perched, eastern amberwings wiggle their striped abdomens to mimic a wasp. This makes predators think twice about snapping them up.

Blue Dasher

  • Flight Season: May to September
  • Habitat: Calm, still water such as marshes, swamps, and the backwaters of rivers

Blue dashers hunt from a perch, zooming off every so often to snag unlucky flies and mosquitoes. They fiercely defend their favorite perches, chasing other dragonflies away.

On hot, sunny days, blue dashers do a handstand. They perch with their heads down and their abdomens straight up to reduce the amount of sunlight falling on their bodies.

Common Whitetail

  • Flight Season: May to October
  • Habitat: Ponds, marshes, and slow streams; tolerates yucky, muddy water

Male whitetails follow a pecking order. Top males raise their white abdomens like flags. Other males lower their abdomens to signal they don’t want to fight.

Female whitetails have fat abdomens that hold more than 1,000 eggs. They lay eggs quickly, releasing 25 per second into the water.

Halloween Pennant

  • Flight Season: June to September
  • Habitat: Open lakes and marshes

Because of their orange color and fluttery flight, some biologists wonder if Halloween pennants look enough like poisonous monarch butterflies to avoid being eaten by birds.

When perched, Halloween pennants hold their back wings flat but tilt their front wings up. The dark spots on the wings provide shade for the dragonfly’s body.

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer

  • Flight Season: May to September
  • Habitat: Lakes and ponds with cattails and reeds

On cool, fall mornings, twelve-spotted skimmers sunbathe to warm up their flight muscles so they can fly.

This dragonfly is named for the three black spots on each of its four wings. But some people call them “tenspots” because males have three white spots on each back wing and two white spots on each front wing. Confused yet?

Black Saddlebag Skimmer

  • Flight Season: May to October
  • Habitat: Shallow lakes and ponds that lack fish; often wanders far from water

On hot, sunny days, saddlebags will let their abdomens droop into the shade created by the spots on their wings.

Some black saddlebags migrate. They’ve been seen flying south with swarms of green darners and other migratory dragonflies.

And More...

This Issue's Staff

Brett Dufur
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Regina Knauer
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
Tim Smith
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White