The Dragonfly—a Beautiful Predator’s Ugly Roots

 Global Jewel


The dragonfly is famous. Second only to the butterfly in world renown and admiration, this predatory insect enjoys global recognition—everyone knows its name and can recognize it on sight. Iconic, symbolic, even mystic, the dragonfly has a place in almost every culture across the Earth, meaning many things to many people. With its unique flying abilities, gorgeous, often jewel-like colors, predatory nature, and distinct hum, the dragonfly has mesmerized humankind for centuries. So it’s strange that few people today are aware of the beautiful dragonfly’s inglorious beginnings.


Water Monsters


The dragonfly is an insect, so it goes without saying that its lifecycle is fairly commonplace. Like many other insects, dragonflies begin as eggs, hatching into nymphs before morphing into adult, flying insects. The egg stage is innocuous, laid in or around water by the females after mating. But when the eggs hatch, the creature that emerges is nothing short of horrifying. The aquatic nymph or naiad form of the dragonfly has all the prehistoric drama of a long dead dinosaur, with extendible jaws to catch prey, crusty, drab-colored exoskeletons, and the disconcerting ability to breathe through gills in their rectum. They can even shoot through their aquatic world by forcefully expelling water through their anus. They are voracious predators, eating anything they can catch, including tadpoles and small fish. Depending on the size of dragonfly, this naiad stage can last anywhere from two months to five years before going through metamorphosis into its more attractive adult form.


The Transformation


So how does this scourge of the aquatic world, this scary, alien and awkward creature become the lovely, graceful and alluring dragonfly? The process of dragonfly metamorphosis from nymph to adult puts modern horror and science fiction films to shame. When the nymph has grown to full size and is ready to morph, it crawls from the water onto some vertical surface, like a plant, rock, or human structure. It begins to breathe as other insects do, through ventricles in its exoskeleton, while it dries. Then its skin splits just behind the head, and the nymph pushes up out of its old skin in an act as repellent as it is fascinating. Ever see the movie Alien? Yes, it’s like that.


The emergent adult hardly resembles the final product, its wings small stumps and the body a stubby mockery of grace, as it hangs weakly from the thin and ghost-like nymph skin. Gradually, the dragonfly pumps fluid into its body parts, expanding them into the more recognizable dragonfly shape of luminescent, outstretched wings and long, slim abdomen. Emergence is the most dangerous stage of a dragonfly’s life, their weakness and inability to escape making them vulnerable to predators. But once their wings dry enough to fly, they become the legendary aerial acrobats and predators, capable of amazing aerial maneuvers, even flying backwards, while they hunt other insects.


Fascinating at Any Stage


Whether the dragonfly is appreciated for its appetite for pest insects, its flying abilities, or its ethereal beauty, this insect has found a special place in human minds and hearts. Studied, admired, and even worshiped, the dragonfly continues to be an integral part of our cultures as well as our ecology. And even though it’s a bit nightmarish, the nymph stage of the dragonfly is just as fascinating and captivating as its famous, gorgeous adult counterpart.


Written by Michelle O’Leary

Dec 2009


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