2018-07-12 / Nature

Damselflies, Jewels of Nature

By Charles Avenengo


An ebony jewelwing damselfly found at Lawton Valley, Portsmouth. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) An ebony jewelwing damselfly found at Lawton Valley, Portsmouth. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) Dragonflies have long fascinated humans. They are exceptionally charismatic and colorful. Few groups of animals are as iconic as the iridescent-winged insects, commonly found in art, jewelry, tattoos, and general bric-a-brac.

Additionally, dragonflies have some of the most spectacular and evocative names in nature, such as sparkling jewelwing, fluttering sapphire, coppery emerald, variable dancer, sphagnum sprite, elfin skimmer, and the most spectral of all: the stygian shadowdragon.

In recent years, in addition to their iconic status, dragonflies have become popular with birdwatchers and other nature-lovers. Dragonflies match birds in flight, color, and because they are daytime flyers, they are easy to observe and relatively simple to photograph.

Many birdwatchers branch out to study other forms of nature, especially those that fly, once they learn their birds. Generally, the first group to garner attention are butterflies. Then come the dragonflies.

In Rhode Island, the initial surge to investigate dragonflies occurred about 20-years ago. At that time, the collective knowledge of the state’s dragonflies was limited. However, this knowledge was expanded by the publication of a number of field guides devoted to their identification. Soon naturalists were reporting their sightings of dragonflies as well as birds.

Collectively, the taxonomic order of dragonflies is called by its scientific name, odonata, which comes from the Greek “odonto,” meaning “the tooth ones,” referring to the strong teeth found on adult mandibles. Odonates are divided into two subgroups, dragonflies proper and damselflies. Often, both groups are referred to as dragonflies.

To tell the two types apart, the general rule is that dragonflies are larger and strong fliers while damselflies are smaller and weak flyers. Additionally, when at rest, dragonflies open their wings while damselflies generally close theirs. Dragonflies have thick bodies, while damselflies have thin bodies.

In Rhode Island, a study was conducted between 1998 and 2004 to determine the presence of odonates in the state. A total of 138 species was recorded, which included 91 species of dragonflies and 47 species of damselflies.

And while dragonflies receive most of the attention, once detected, the delicate damselflies are everywhere. The problem is that they are often difficult to observe and it takes a shift in focus to become aware of their presence. Essentially, the trick is to look in low places. A good area to investigate is at the edge of a weedy field where they are invariably present, especially near water.

At first, because of their unassuming habits and small size, most are only an inch or so in length, barely perceptible. However, as they fly knee-high from one perch to another, they come into focus. Fortunately, once flushed, they don’t fly very far away, offering an extended opportunity to study them.

Closer examination reveals that not only do their striking iridescent wings and colorful bodies make them beautiful insects, they are actually very common.

Odonates have a three-part life cycle: eggs, larval nymphs that develop under water, and adults. As handsome as the adults are, the aquatic nymphs are completely dissimilar, appearing rather as ferocious, formidable predators that are visually unappealing. The majority of their lives are spent in the nymph phase.

About 15 years ago, after I had embarked on the study of “odes,” I encountered Dan Cinotti, one of Aquidneck Island’s senior naturalists and the author of “A Guide to Birding in Newport, RI.” I revealed to Cinotti that I was just beginning to study odonates. He replied that one species to keep an eye out for in my explorations was a type of damsel called the ebony jewelwing. He said he wasn’t aware of its presence on Aquidneck Island. It took a couple of years, but inadvertently I found them.

This was in the lower reaches of Lawton Valley Brook in Portsmouth. I was actually looking for salamanders and other nature when I spied an unmistakable jewelwing perched on a low bush directly in front of me. It turned out that there was a small colony present and I was able to photograph one. What was exciting for me was not so much that I had accomplished Cinotti’s challenge, but rather that I had seen a species of damselfly which with their metallic blue-green body and black wings, is considered by many to be the most beautiful damselfly in the world, and here it was in our backyard. Fellow naturalist Bob Weaver has also seen them.

So next time you’re in the field, in addition to looking up, don’t forget to look down. That’s where some of nature’s jewels may also be found.

Myths and Facts about Dragonflies and Damselflies

.There are about 5,000 species of odonates in the world. About 450 of these are found in the United States.

. Three-hundred-million-yearold fossils of dragonflies not only are nearly exact replicas of today’s version, they also have wingspans over two feet in length, formidable predators indeed!

.Each dragonfly eye has about 30,000 lenses. We have one.

.In-flight, adults can eat hundreds of mosquitoes a day. Additionally, the underwater nymphs consume mosquito larvae.

.As winter approaches, some species migrate south. They average around 7.5 miles a day. One species, the globe skimmer, travels 11,000 miles back and forth between the Indian Ocean annually.

.Dragonflies do not sting humans, ever. Only the family of ants, bees, wasps, and hornets. Nor do they bite humans; their mandibles aren’t strong enough to pierce our skin.

Sometimes referred to as “Devil’s darning needles,” dragonflies do not sew mouth, and ears shut.

And despite having been known as snake doctors, they certainly cannot bring dead snakes back to life as the myth alludes.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

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