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Aerial Acrobats: From the Ozarks to Africa, dragonflies take flight through entomologist's field study, photographs and interactive site

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There are few things as captivating on a hot summer afternoon as a brightly colored dragonfly performing its aerial acrobatics over a body of water or perched on a leaf with its long abdomen quivering. Not that Dr. John Abbott needs convincing.

Abbott, an entomologist and curator of the Brackenridge Field Laboratory Insect Collection at The University of Texas at Austin, can recall the very day he as an undergraduate student on a field trip stood by a lake north of Denton, Texas, and a graduate student pointed out some dragonflies to him.

Dr. John Abbott taking a photograph
Dr. John Abbott, a researcher and expert on dragonflies and damselflies, is curator of the Brackenridge Field Lab Insect Collection and an accomplished nature photographer.

You might say he got bit.

“It was one of those moments where I said, ‘Wow,’” he says. “At the time, there were just a handful of researchers across the country who were actively involved in researching them, and I thought there was a lot of opportunity there. And I’ve been crazy about them ever since.”

Abbott is so crazy about dragonflies and damselflies, which together are called odonata, that he’s studied them everywhere from Africa to the Ozarks to Trinidad and back. At Brackenridge Field Lab his collection numbers more than 10,000, with 800 different species. And he can’t stop talking about them either, giving presentations to classes at the Austin Children’s Museum, local naturalist groups, visitors at dragonfly festivals and at campus events.

People definitely want to know more. The insect world’s first predator, dragonflies have been around for more than 250 million years. The university’s Texas Memorial Museum, where Abbott is a research associate, has a fossil of an ancient dragonfly with a wingspan of seven inches, though some ancient dragonflies’ wingspans stretched to 28 inches.

Today’s dragonflies are generally smaller than their ancestors, but they remain fierce predators. There are confirmed reports of large tropical dragonflies feasting on small hummingbirds. Most dragonflies, however, stick to mosquitoes, flies and other small insects for their diet, sometimes eating other dragonflies and damselflies as well.

More than 5,000 species are known today, and they’re found in every corner of the planet except Antarctica. With 223 species, Texas has more species than any other state. And there’s a recent surge of interest in dragonflies and damselflies both in the scientific community and among nonscientific folks.

photo icon of camera VIEW PHOTOS: < Previous | Next >

This slide show features some of the 223 species of dragonflies you might encounter in the Lone Star State. You can discover more species in Abbott’s book, “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and the South-Central United States.”

Check out the dragonflies photo key.

All photographs © John C. Abbott Nature Photography.

“There’s something magical about dragonflies,” Abbott says. “They’re incredibly agile in the air. They’re beautiful. They’re colorful. They possess many of the same qualities that attract people to butterflies and birds. And you can identify a good many of them after a little bit of practice with binoculars and field guides. That’s the big thing.”

Few if any field guides existed even 10 years ago, but today there are several to choose from, including Abbott’s own “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Texas and the South-Central United States,” the first guide to focus exclusively on this geographic region.

Abbott also says that unlike the study of birds and butterflies, which have been examined for the better part of a century, dragonfly scholarship is still relatively new. So the public can contribute to the knowledge base.

That’s one of the ideas behind Odonata Central, the interactive site Abbott started in 2004. The site makes available everything researchers know about the distribution and biodiversity of dragonflies in North America, including Mexico.

Visitors can find lists of known dragonflies and damselflies by state or province or they can investigate a particular species and map its distribution in North America. They can gather information on species size, flight seasons, habitats and morphological features through the online field guide. They can browse through rich photo galleries.

And they can also participate. This is one of the things that makes Odonata Central unique. Anyone can submit a new species locality record to the site by creating a new entry and uploading a digital photo or sending a specimen to the lab. Contributors have already submitted more than 5,000 records.

Each submission is independently vetted by a scientist before being put into the database where everyone can see it.

“We try to maintain a high level of scientific integrity,” Abbott says, “but at the same time invite everybody who’s interested, from the casual observer who might be looking at what’s in his back yard to the scientist.”

Fossil imprint of extinct dragonfly, type specimen scanned at the Texas Memorial Museum
Collected in Kansas in 1903 by E. H. Sellards, the fossil imprint of this extinct dragonfly—Tupus permianus—shows that it did not hover like dragonflies do today. It does not have struts near the base of the wing that are needed for powerful hovering.

There were no mammals or birds on Earth when it lived 258 million years ago. In fact, it was the only flying predator of its time.
Sellards 1906. Type specimen scanned at Texas Memorial Museum.
© Roy Beckemeyer and Texas Natural Science Center.

Abbott says the public’s enthusiasm for the site has been terrific. He mentions a retired Austin police officer who plans out his trips in the state to places where he knows there are gaps in information about the species.

But one needn’t take up the study and collection of dragonflies and damselflies to enjoy them. Abbott offers some facts about them the casual observer might not know.

“Most people have no idea that the majority of a dragonfly or damselfly’s life is spent in an aquatic stage in the water,” Abbott says. “The adult stage where they’re flying around lasts for about a month to six weeks around here.”

The larval stage, however, lasts from eight months to a year, and in some species in east Texas as long as five years. So the celebrated darting, flying and spectral colors of the dragonfly are actually a sign of old age.

Even the larvae are tremendous predators. Dragonfly larvae can feed on newts, tadpoles, small fish and other aquatic life. It’s not unusual for them to be the top predators in a pond with small fish.

Unlike butterflies, where the caterpillars can be easy to identify, dragonfly and damselfly larvae are difficult for the nonscientist to identify. Hobbyists can easily, however, try to draw the adult dragonflies and the larvae to their properties by adding backyard ponds and other landscape features with water.

If you decide to do so, it’s important to include some plant life in the water feature.

“All damselflies lay their eggs in vegetation,” Abbott explains. “Sometimes you’ll see a damselfly working her way down a stem, sometimes connected to the male, laying eggs. She can actually submerge herself for hours to lay eggs one at a time.”

Calico Pennant

Fragile Forktail
Dragonflies and damselflies differ in several noticeable ways. Dragonflies, such as this Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa) in the top photo, perch with their wings out to the sides of the body. They are stronger flies, often have considerable color in the wings and are generally more robust. Damselflies, such as the Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita), generally perch with their wings back over the abdomen, are not strong fliers and rarely have color in their wings.

And what about that mid-air mating that leads to egg laying, that common sight of two dragonflies making a circle in the air? Well, as romantic as it may seem, the reality isn’t quite so pretty. A male dragonfly will grab the female by the head by the tip of his abdomen, literally on the eye. In larger dragonflies there will actually be some scarring on the eyes where he held her. Damselflies have it a little better because they’re grabbed at the thorax.

Male dragonflies and damselflies have two sets of reproductive organs, one at the tip of the abdomen and one at the base. The process of curling to transfer sperm from one set of organs to the other and then connecting to the organs of the female creates the familiar wheel shape of mating dragonflies. In damselflies, the shape looks more like a heart.

It’s also common to see dragonflies flying in a tandem position, but once again, there’s little romance in it. In reality it’s every dragonfly for himself in the insect world, and the male dragonfly is basically making sure no other male can mate with the female before the eggs he has fertilized have been deposited.

“So it’s a very competitive world out there,” Abbott says, “and what you see is the male doing all sorts of behaviors to guard the female, to keep an eye on his investment.”

Despite the violent mating and predatory habits, there’s little for humans to worry about when encountering dragonflies and damselflies. In fact, as insects go, it’s hard to imagine better ones. Dragonflies and damselflies keep the mosquito populations in check, pose no harm to humans—not even biting—and aren’t shy about showing off their array of finery.

Perhaps the only real danger is that, like Abbott—who will travel to Costa Rica, Arkansas and the Galapagos Islands this summer to study and photograph dragonflies and damselflies—once you start following them, you may not want to stop.

BY Vivé Griffith

Banner photo courtesy of Dr. Abbott

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  Updated 17 July 2006
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