What small creature found throughout the world is often mistaken for a cousin, evolves dramatically during its life cycle, and broadcasts ecosystem health?
Recently I’ve been finding a lot of solace and inspiration in nature, taking long walks into the late evening around the beautiful green spaces in my neighborhood. Though I’ve lived in this area for about two years, I keep discovering new creatures and a deeper sense of relationship – with bats and swallows, herons and cormorants, fungi, birches, willows, and so many others. A few weeks ago during my walk around Jamaica Pond, I went to examine a young pine, inspired by the very small pine saplings we planted in our Cambridge Miyawaki Forest and seeing the fascinating way they grow via bright green needled shoots. As I got close, I noticed two tiny stick-like insects I’d never seen before, nearly blended in with the detritus from other spring trees who had been shedding their cones, seeds, needles, and flowers.
This little fellow turned out to be the smaller and less well known cousin of the dragonfly, the damselfly. With its streamlined aerodynamic body and its distinctive pattern and coloring, the insect was immediately intriguing.
Taxonomy and Anatomy
I first wondered what exactly I was seeing, and how this creature differed from the dragonfly. It turns out many people have raised this question and worked to highlight the key differences. Both damselflies and dragonflies are members of the insect order Odonata. Damselflies make up the suborder Zygoptera, while dragonflies constitute the suborder Anisoptera. Many Featured Creatures ago, Tania profiled the better-known dragonfly, which shares many similarities with the damselfly. However, there are a few differences, and both insects play an important part in their ecosystems.
Damselflies are generally smaller, with narrow bodies, wings they fold in at rest, and eyes far apart on their heads. Dragonflies are larger insects, with bulkier bodies, differently sized forewing and hindwing sections, wings kept open when at rest, and large eyes placed close together.
Like other odonates and insects, the damselfly proceeds through a few distinct stages in life as they develop from tiny cylindrical eggs (around 1 mm long), to aquatic larvae (aka nymphs) with no wings, to mature adults, when they sprout their wings and reach an average size of 1 to 2 inches long. Since water bodies are their homes for crucial periods in their lives, these creatures always reside near water. They mostly breed in freshwater environments, though a few species also breed by brackish water, where saltwater and freshwater meet.
Damselflies are predator insects, actively hunting smaller insects as prey in both adult life and their nymph stage. In turn, they are consumed by larger predators, which include birds, frogs, fish, water spiders, water beetles, dragonflies, and other types of damselflies.
While damselfly nymphs are less studied and are thought to prey largely on crustaceans like water fleas, the adult damselfly will concentrate its efforts on flies and mosquitoes, which is great news for humans who can suffer from the diseases they carry (or the sheer irritation of mosquito bites). Damselflies form an essential part of the ecosystem regulation, keeping pests under control and benefitting the gardens, parks, and wild areas they call home.
There is a great deal of variation in damselfly species, and it’s no wonder! They’ve been around for hundreds of millions of years, since the time of dinosaurs. And while fossil records suggest that much of their structural anatomy has not changed since then, they’ve certainly had enough time to spread throughout the world, where they’re found on all continents besides Antarctica, and show off a variety of colorful looks. Check out this adorable collection of expressive damselfly photos to appreciate their beauty.
Besides the ways they contribute to the healthy functioning of their ecosystems with their diets, damselflies can also share lessons with us as they act as indicators of ecosystem health. They are sensitive to pollution and environmental degradation, so by tracking their populations we can maintain awareness of the conditions and challenges in the landscapes around us. Aside from the joy of seeing a damselfly dart around your local pond, you can also take heart that their presence means that ecologically, the area is robust and supporting plenty of life. Though we often tend to encounter unfavorable views of insects, maybe the damselfly can teach us to see other creatures as more than meets the eye. I’m starting to see these little aviators as a symbol of ecological wellness, and turn my aversion toward unfamiliar insects into curiosity and delight.
For damselflies and other unsung heroes,