Wild Neighbors: Spiketails and Meadowhawks: Dragons of the Air

By Joe Eaton
Thursday August 27, 2009 - 01:30:00 PM
Blue-eyed dragonfly: a male Pacific spiketail.
George Doerksen
Blue-eyed dragonfly: a male Pacific spiketail.

Dragonflies enliven the doldrums of August. Wherever there’s still or slowly flowing water, you can see them and their smaller relatives, the damselflies, patrolling for food or mates. (Dragonflies spread their wings out when at rest, while most damselflies fold them over their backs).  

I’m happy to report that I saw my first Pacific spiketail at the UC Botanical Garden’s lily pond last week: a large, black-and-yellow-banded dragonfly with blue eyes. Blue eyes! There were also a couple of red meadowhawks and enamel-blue damselflies. 

These members of the order Odonata have an important place in the human consciousness. Part of it is pure esthetics: the vivid colors-flaming scarlets, metallic blues and greens-and agile flight. They’ve inspired artists, eastern and western; dragonfly motifs were popular in the Arts and Crafts movement, and in the current Craftsman revival. Some cultures have seen them as spirits of the dead. 

When I was growing up in the South we called them skeeter hawks (accurate enough, since adults prey heavily on mosquitos) and darning needles (no, they won’t sew your lips shut). To some of the older folks they were bee butchers and snake doctors, although it was never really clear what a dragonfly could do for an ailing snake. The blue-tailed fly of folksong fame may have been a dragonfly. 

Harmless to humans, dragonflies in both their life stages are voracious little monsters, superbly adapted predators. Adults, with their enormous compound eyes, can rotate their heads to scan for prey in all directions. They have excellent color vision and can see ultraviolet and polarized light. The first two pairs of legs, studded with spines, form a basket for snagging smaller insects from the air and delivering them to the serrated jaws. 

Those gauzy wings are braced by a network of veins. They’re tougher than they look: some species undertake long-distance migrations, even crossing the Gulf of Mexico. Dragonflies were among the first creatures to take to the air. Some early forms were enormous: the ancient Meganeuropsis, with the wingspan of an eagle, may have been at the upper limit of possible insect size. (The giant ants of Them would been way too big to breathe as insects do, let alone fly to Los Angeles.) 

Adult dragonflies only live for a few weeks, so finding a mate is a priority. Males typically stake out territories over water and wait for females to show up. Courtship is perfunctory, but copulation takes a while. The male clasps the female behind her head with his forceps-like epiproct, and mating pairs fly around in tandem until the female is ready to lay her eggs. 

She may scatter the eggs over the surface of the water or inject them into plant stems through a stinger-like ovipositor. Some damselflies submerge to lay their eggs a foot or more underwater. Female dragonflies in search of an egg-laying site have been known to mistake a shiny car for a pond. 

The gargoyle-like dragonfly nymph was described by entomologist Alexander Klots as “one of the most grotesque of living creatures, as well as one of the most rapacious.” Often the top predators of their habitats, their victims are mainly other aquatic insects but may include small fish and tadpoles. The nymph’s weapon is its lower lip, equipped with claws, which it can shoot out for a third of its body length in a hundredth of a second. Even their respiration is bizarre: they breathe through gills in their rear ends, and can expel water to travel by jet propulsion. 

After a year or more as the terror of the pond (up to eight years in some species), dragonfly nymphs leave the water for a perch on a plant stem and the transformation begins. This may take place at night, or early in the morning, before hungry birds are up. Gulping air helps split the larval skin, and the winged adult slowly climbs out. Until its wings harden, it’s helpless, incapable of flight; losing its grip would be fatal.  

Present in most freshwater ecosystems, dragonflies and damselflies range from the tropics to Alaskan bogs. California has 64 dragonfly species, in seven families, and over a hundred species of damselflies; some occur nowhere else. They’re vulnerable to habitat loss: 15 percent of North America’s dragonflies are considered at risk of extinction. 

But they have their fans and defenders. There’s a national group, the Dragonfly Society of the Americas, whose members adopted a set of standardized common names a few years ago (with felicitous results: ebony boghaunter, saffron-winged meadowhawk, stygian shadowdragon.) Kathy Biggs and Tim Manolis have published excellent field guides to the California species. 

Although dragonflying may never rival birding in popularity, they have their undeniable appeal. And it’s good to know that even in city parks you can find something as exotic-sounding as a flame skimmer or a blue dasher.