Damselflies beautiful, easy to differentiate

  • This male slender spreadwing has gorgeous blue eyes. COURTESY BILL DANIELSON

  • Covered in metallic emerald and accented with velvet black wings, the male ebony jewelwing may be the most beautiful member of the Odonata order and it is found right here in our area. COURTESY BILL DANIELSON

  • Danielson FILE PHOTO

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 8/2/2018 10:21:18 PM
Modified: 8/2/2018 10:21:21 PM

I had every intention of going out in search of damselflies last week, but the torrential rains kept me inside. The entire week was a wash, so I had to dig deep into my archives to find something that would work. In the end, the two species I selected do a great job of rounding out my treatment of Odonata order.

Before I go much further, I think I should review the taxonomic hierarchy. Living organisms are classified into different taxonomic groups based on shared features. Dragonflies are considered animals (Kingdom Animalia), because they have no cell walls and cannot manufacture their own food. They are further classified as Arthropods (phylum Arthropoda), because they have exoskeletons, segmented bodies and paired, jointed appendages.

Because dragonflies have a three-part body, three pairs of legs and compound eyes, they are classified as insects (Class Insecta). Beyond this point, the characteristics that separate dragonflies from other insects are too detailed and numerous to list here, but dragonflies and damselflies all fall into the order Odonata. So far this month, I have focused my attention on members of the skimmer family (Family Libellulidae), which are insects commonly known as dragonflies.

Your prototypical dragonfly has four wings that are held out from the sides of the body; parallel to the surface the dragonfly is perched on and perpendicular to the abdomen. So far, all of the species I have shared with you have conformed to this model, differing only in the minor characteristics of shape and coloration. Though these “minor” differences are incredibly important to the individual species, for my purposes today, they are classified as “minor” just so we can distinguish between families.

Today, I shall introduce you to members of two additional families found within the Odonata order. The first is a group of exceptionally beautiful insects in the broad-winged damselfly family (Family Calopterygidae). Now, when looking at the ebony jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata), you will immediately notice that the wings are held together above the abdomen, rather than perpendicular to it. This is a hallmark of the damselflies, and it makes them very easy to differentiate from dragonflies. Also, you will see that the head has a different shape, being more vertically compressed than the rounder heads of dragonflies.

The ebony jewelwing is, in my opinion, the most beautiful member of its family, and we are very fortunate that they can be found living among us in our area. Even more fortunate, is the precise habitat that this species prefers: slow-moving woodland streams. I’ve seen this species at Laurel Lake in the Erving State Forest and in many other places where small streams flow through wooded areas. The males are metallic iridescent emerald green with jet-black wings. There is nothing else like them.

I was supremely lucky to cross paths with a male slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis) while patrolling the trails in my own meadow. This species is a member of yet another Odonate family, the spreadwings (Family Lestidae). As you can see from the photo, the slender spreadwing is truly well-named. The insect’s body is almost threadlike, and the wings are so diaphanous that they are quite difficult to see against the background. But, when you look at those wings, you notice something important.

Unlike the dragonflies, who hold their wings flat at their sides, or the damselflies, who hold their wings together above the body, the spreadwings sort of find a middle ground. The wings are held about halfway between, clasped together and flat at the sides. Apparently, this is such a key feature, it merited the creation of an entire taxonomic group.

The slender spreadwing is found near lakes, ponds and slow streams, where forest edge is also found. I happen to have a slow-moving stream in my own yard, and a pond in a nearby neighbor’s yard, so the presence of the spreadwing was easy to explain, if not easy to detect. I almost walked past this particular insect, thinking that the movement I detected was just a blade of tall grass moving, but it moved just a little too oddly to ignore. A male (identified by his beautiful blue eyes) posed only briefly for a photo. A female would have eyes that were more of a violet-blue.

So, there you have it, folks. I have exhausted my collection of top-quality Odonate, and I think I’ve also covered this group in enough detail to have me looking around for something new to focus on. I don’t think I’ll be able to dedicate August to any one group of organisms, but rather, I will take advantage of my summer vacation and simply wander wherever I find something interesting. Perhaps, if you are out wandering, as well, we will cross paths.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 21 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit: www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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