Dragon hunt

Not the fire-breathing type but Anisoptera. I spotted the first dragon this year over Easter during a picnic at Grantchester Meadows, south of Cambridge. It wasn’t, technically speaking a dragonfly, but a damselfly, specifically, a large red damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula), which is one of the first to emerge after the Winter. Due to the weather this year many things have happened earlier than usual and the large red was out and about in late April. And they are magnificently red:


Large red damselfly male. There are three colour forms of the female all of which have more dark banding on the abdomen than the male

Milton Country Park on the northern edge of Cambridge is a great place to see numerous species of dragonfly and damselfly, and on a foray there on Saturday with my friend, David, we counted 10 species. Dragonflies – I’m using this generic term interchangeably to cover dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera) – are remarkable creatures, there are few more accomplished aeronauts in the animal kingdom, and the various life cycles are amazing.

The life cycles involve an aqautic larval stage, the larvae hatching from eggs laid either underwater or inside plant material close to the waters surface. The duration of the larval stage is affected by various factors including temperature, and for species such as the blue tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans), this results in the difference in duration of the larval stadium (developmental stage) of 1 year in warmer parts and 2 years where it’s colder.


Blue tailed damselfly, immature male

After the larval stage, metamorphosis, switched on by warmer temperatures and extended day length, occurs over a few weeks and concludes with the emergence of the adult from the larval cuticle when it will dry out and take to the air. The drying out process is hazardous as it renders the new adults susceptible to predation by birds, consequently they time their emergence to occur at night or in the early morning. New adult dragonflies then disperse from water for approximately a few days to a few weeks, until they are sexually mature, when they return to the water for the serious business of finding a mate and starting the whole process over again.

This is a very incomplete and generic description of the dragonfly lifecycle, but if you want to discover more I recommend a book called ‘Field guide to the dragonflies and damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland’ written by Steve Brooks and illustrated by Richard Lewington (ISBN 978 0 9531399 0 3). It’s a very well written book with lots of easy to read information and high quality illustrations. And because there are only around 40 or so species of dragon and damselfy in GB and Ireland it won’t take you all year to read!

On our walk we saw hairy and emperor dragonflies (Brachytron pratense and Anax imperator respectively), both species of hawker, which I couldn’t get good photographs of as they were whizzing around over the water at high speed and never seemed to settle within range. Similarly with the four-spotted chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata), but then as we positioned ourselves in a very good viewing location on one of the smaller lakes a scarce chaser (Libellula fulva) appeared on a nearby seedhead and with occasional forays stayed there all the time we were there, giving some great photo opportunities:


Scarce chaser male, the female has a yellow abdomen with a thin black spine and doesn’t have the three black end segments

There were lots of damselflies too, apart from the large red and blue tailed already mentioned. Variable damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum):

Azure damselfly (Coenagrion puella):

And common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum)

This pair of common blues are in ‘tandem’ with the green eyed female underneath. This position is adopted by non-territorial damselflies where the male grips the female behind the head and in this way ensures that no other male can mate with her before his eggs have been laid – a process called ‘ovipositing’. The eggs hatch out after 2-5 weeks and the larvae begin their development underwater where they are ambush predators, feeding on a variety of prey from other insect larvae to tadpoles and even small fish!

They are amazing creatures, and more species will be emerging over the next weeks and month so hopefully I can gather some more images of other species for subsequent posts before the Summer ends.

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3 responses to “Dragon hunt

  1. Pingback: 2011 – That was the year that was | The Naturephile

  2. Question, we went punting yesterday and there were quiet a few dragonflys zipping about the Cam/Granta, indeed some real big old boys, and someone raised the question of what the difference was between a dragon and a damsel fly. I don’t know but I said I knew a man who would, so is there a concise distinction?

    • Damselflies (Zygoptera) and dragonflies (Anisoptera) are the two members of the order of insects called Odanata. Damselflies are the smaller, thinner ones, with abdomens up to around 3cm long and 1-2mm wide. Dragonflies are much bigger and have abdomens up to around 60mm long which have various shapes from long and straight to shorter and tapered. Your ‘real big old boys‘ were almost certainly dragonflies.

      The easiest discerning visual feature is the shorter thinner abdomen of the damselflies. If you have a look at the post ‘Dragon Hunt’ from 23rd May this year there are some photographs which highlight the differences.

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