Acrobats on water

If you walk along the bank of a stream, river, lake, pond or even around lush green paddy field you will certainly notice dragonflies and damselflies. They are collectively called odonates (from the OrderOdonata ) and are an amazing group of insects. Their life cycle is closely associated with water. They are born, feed and reproduce in and around water bodies. They feed on mosquitoes and other insects which we consider pests.

The ‘tail’

Their body divided into three parts: head with compound eyes, thorax where the wings are and a long segmented abdomen. Their abdomen is usually referred to as the tail although they do not actually have one. Dragonflies are more robust-looking and damselflies are rather delicate. You can tell them apart based on their posture while sitting. Dragonflies spread their wings sideways whereas damselflies fold their wings closely above their body.

Life cycle

Sometimes you can see them in pairs flying above the water surface. They are a mating pair: male flying in front is holding the female by her head with tip of his abdomen. Occasionally, while flying, the female will touch the water surface with the tip of the abdomen. That is when she is laying her eggs. You can also see the male guarding her by circling the place where she lays the eggs or even holding by her head during the egg-laying. The nymphs that hatch from the eggs live underwater and are voracious feeders. Once mature, they slowly climb up on a stick, vegetation or rock near the water and open their shield and emerge as an adult dragonfly or damselfly.

Meet the odonates

If damselflies attract us with their spectacular colours, dragonflies captivate us with their acrobatic skills.

Crimson Marsh Glider is a medium sized dragonfly commonly seen in marsh, ponds and streams. It is fascinating to see it perch on a stick emerging from the water.

Ground Skimmer is a small dragonfly found commonly in agricultural fields and grassy patches and it too sits the same way. When a strong wind blows, it moves its body sideways with legs extended in front holding the stick, adjusting itself according to wind direction.

Fulvous Forest Skimmer found in the thick wooded jungles takes your breath away with its colours! It has brilliant red wings with amazingly delicate venation. When perched they close their corrugated wings downwards, step by step close to their body as if they are armouring themselves.

Common Picture Wing is another interesting dragonfly. When fluttering high up in the sky, in a typical weak flight, it is easily mistaken for a butterfly. But when it perches, its golden coloured wings with their peculiar pattern sway gently side to side, like the movement of the balancing stick held by a tight-rope walker.

Long-legged Marsh Glider are seen along the rivers, ponds and lakes and are fascinating to watch especially during hot part of the day. Once perched, they slowly raise their long abdomen upwards. Eventually the tip of the abdomen points at the sun. They do this to avoid overheating of their body. This is called the obelisk posture and look like a gymnast doing handstand!

There are 536 species of Odonates known to occur in India. Like birdwatching ( birding ), odonate watching or “oding” , is also becoming a popular activity.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 13 February 2013.

Photo credit: P. Jeganathan