I’ve been watching the dragonflies fly all summer. They swoop and swarm over the grass by our forested hillside, and there are times when I see past the little jungle gym and the tottering old teeter-totter into a much more primordial time. So many things would change if we could travel through time, but dragonflies would be there beside any pond or stream, lake or river, for the past three hundred million years. Granted, they’d be a little bigger, a bit different, but recognizably dragonfly. That’s quite an extraordinary thing to realize.
Dragonflies have been an especial favorite insect of mine ever since I saw illustrations of them flying around dinosaurs when I was a wee little kiddie. They seem otherworldly, somehow, with their long four wings, their enormous eyes and their stick-thin bodies. They’re one of the most enchanting parts of summer.
Usually, I see fairly small ones, zipping about like the fighter jets of the insect world. But there was a sunny summer morning when I stepped out on the porch on my way to work, and saw this magnificent beastie, the size of my hand, hanging about on the rail.
There are times when it seems like Mother Nature has chosen out a particularly impressive example of her handiwork and set it out on display, just so she can stand to one side with a smug smirk while I stand there attempting to breathe. It took me a few seconds to unstick my feet and sneak back into the house for the camera. Work be damned. I’d never get a chance like this again.
I kept fearing it would fly away as I inched closer, but it never so much as twitched. If some crazy human with a camera wanted macros, it seemed to think, fine. Fire away. Any angle you like. Yes, I am magnificent, aren’t I? Look at me. I could fly off at the speed of a racehorse, if I liked, but instead I’ll hang out here with my dramatically transparent wings gleaming in stray sunbeams and show off the reason why evolution hasn’t done more than tinker round my edges. I am perfect.
As I shifted round it for different angles, its transparent wings gleamed, the sun striking iridescent highlights from them. Four wings that don’t fold – that’s how you tell a dragonfly from its close relative, the damselfly. Those veins give their gossamer wings strength. And there are things you’d never suspect about them, watching them fly about: that they’re fierce predators, with a prehensile labium evolved for swift biting. When you have something that can fly at incredible speeds, hover, change direction in an eyeblink, and thrust out part of its mouth to catch you, you’re a very unfortunate bug indeed if the dragonfly looks upon you and says, “I believe I shall consume you for my luncheon.”
And those eyes. Dragonflies have enormous eyes. I mean, no wonder they haven’t got large antennae – who needs them when you’ve got these peepers:
Each compound eye is composed of nearly 28,000 individual units (ommatidia), and together the eyes cover most of the head. More than 80% of their brain is devoted to analyzing visual information.
I wish I could see the world through those eyes, with that brain. It must be truly extraordinary. Just like great and glorious order Odonata.
This beauty very nearly tempted me to call work and explain I couldn’t be there, on account of being unavoidably detained by something primeval.
I’d never seen one this large before. Yes, granted, it’s minuscule compared to some of the monsters who flew the Carboniferous wetlands. A handspan compared to over two feet doesn’t seem like much. But it’s bloody well big enough to impress in our shrunken age, thank you ever so much.
Earlier this year, we saw a colorful little bugger whilst exploring the Skykomish River near Monroe. This one kindly posed on rocks for the enjoyment of the geologists in the audience.
This appears to be a Plathemis lydia, Common Whitetail. Not that it has got a white tail, but if I’m right, it soon will have – it seems to be an immature male. Although calling it immature seems a little unfair – dragonfly nymphs can live for several years, after all, so this one might not be all that young. The aquatic nymphs are my buddies. They eat mosquito larvae. And the adult Common Whitetail likes to nom on mosquitoes, too, so they’re nice to have around.
This little gentleman flitted about from rock to rock, playing snap-me-if-you-can, unlike the stately subject on my porch. And there were garter snakes in the same nest of boulders, so I got a bit distracted trying to snap those. I enjoy garter snakes. But the dragonfly is, of course, prettier.
Looks like someone who should be out flying with dinosaurs, doesn’t he? Amazing little creature. Creationists seem to be amazed by them, to – search “dragonfly evolution,” and you’ll see a bunch of creationist sites babbling that dragonflies prove they were created because they haven’t evolved. There’s an edge of hysteria, there. Well, you’d be a little overwrought if you were clinging to a completely wrong position, with evidence that dragonflies did, in fact, evolve from earlier critters and have continued evolving ever since, even if the basics of their body plans have worked well enough that they don’t look vastly different from what they were when they came into their own well over two hundred million years ago.
I also found out that the state insect of Washington is a dragonfly: the Green Darner. I had no idea we even had state insects. We’ve got state everything, apparently. I wonder what our official state tube sock is?
That’s a pretty outstanding state insect, though. Could’ve been much worse. Could’ve been a cockroach. Instead, we get something brilliant and beautiful and altogether delightful. But one gets the impression that this Common Whitetail is plotting to overthrow the Green Darner.
If you wish to continue immersing yourself in dragonflies, do visit their page on the Tree of Life. And the next time you get a chance, pause a while with one, and let yourself be carried back to a time when we were nothing more than timorous little shrews while these creatures took to the skies with pterodactyls.