117 Species of Dragonflies
Text and all photos by Kathy Biggs
Like the birds and butterflies, the dragonflies of the desert come in vibrant colors. They fly; they have interesting life histories and amazing behaviors. When they emerge from their natal waters, they change from ugly aquatic nymphs to beautiful, dazzling, flying predators. You can see them during the spring, summer and early fall months.The desert species of dragonflies vary in size from the giant darner, which at nearly six inches is the largest in North America, to the citrine forktail, a damselfly, that at less than one inch is North America’s very smallest. Both of these species are desert specialists preferring arid lands with warm waters. All the in-between sizes are present too, with many shapes and a variety of hues represented.
They come not only in red, fuchsia, orange, pink, blue, gold, saffron, black, emerald, maroon, earth tones, and more, but also in metallic colors. Some have colored, spotted or banded wings; others may have clear wings but clubbed abdomens or a spike on their tail. And, no, they do not sting or bite. They have mouths that they do use to bite their prey (mostly mosquitoes and gnats) but they do not bite people unless caught and handled roughly, and even then it's akin to getting a good pinch. They have no stingers; the projections on the end of their abdomens are their claspers, used by the male to hold the female in their unique 'wheel' mating position.
All you really need in order to be a dragonfly watcher are your eyes. Optional items would include shoes that can get wet, an insect net, a 10-20X magnifying hand lens, zip-lock baggies/glassine envelopes, a good guide and plenty of sunscreen. If you don't own close-focus binoculars, then a camera with a zoom lens can also be helpful; often regular ‘birding’ binoculars won't focus in close enough, while a camera will. You can click for a picture, or just use the camera for viewing. Some dragonflies need to be caught and held to learn their identifications, thus the net and zip-lock/glassine baggies. Dragonflies and damselflies can be held by their strong wings; folding the wings above their abdomens. Observe them thus in hand or temporarily placed in the baggies, viewing their markings before releasing them. But it is also enjoyable just to watch their amazing aerial antics.
To date, more than 117 species of dragonflies have been identified in the greater Southwest - over 184 if you include the damselflies, the members of the smaller suborder Zygoptera. Our desert habitats have a unique and beautiful dragonfly fauna, often containing species found in no other environment. Desert specialists include the desert whitetail, desert forktail, desert firetail, Mexican amberwing, Mexican forktail, filigree skimmer, serpent ringtail, brimstone clubtail, Kiowa and Pima dancers, painted damsel and the very rare desert shadow damsel.
Dragonfly studies in the United States are in their infancy, as the study of birds was a century ago. Believe it or not, just a few years ago a much smaller number of species of Odonata (the scientific name for the dragonfly's order that includes dragonflies and damselflies) were known to exist in the southwest’s deserts. Many species have been added just in the last few years, mostly through observation of live flying insects. Other species were found through reviews of museum specimens and photographic records. And the census is nowhere near complete; there may be a few surprises yet! Part of the thrill of watching dragonflies is the ability for even beginners to add to the understanding of their distribution, life cycles and habitat requirements. You could easily go out and find a new species in a new locality or observe and record new behavior or flight data! We still have very much to learn and record about their distribution, life histories and flight seasons.
Life Cycle of a Dragonfly
Like dragonflies everywhere, our desert species start life as a tiny egg, not much larger than the period at the end of this sentence. Most species scatter their eggs freely over a waterway or insert them into vegetation that is floating in or overhanging water. Some eggs hatch within weeks; others overwinter before hatching. The larval stage is called a nymph or, more properly, a larva. Dragonfly larvae look like fierce dragons and crawl about underwater hunting for food. A unique feature is their labium, a lower lip that they project to hook prey. While damselfly larvae have feather-like gills at the end of their abdomen, dragonfly larvae do not. All go through about a dozen molts, or instars, before crawling out onto a stem or rock to emerge.
After a period of time, from a month or two to even a few years of growing and molting, the larva crawls out of the water. Its skin then cracks open over the thorax. The adult dragonfly slowly emerges from this old shell; some species even hang down from it limply at first. Then after its legs harden, it pulls itself upright and its body and wings begin to expand and harden. After an hour or more the new adult dragonfly flies off. The empty shell that is left behind is called the exuvia.
Most adult dragonflies live for only several weeks or months; adult damselflies live for an even shorter period. During this time they feed on mosquitoes, gnats and other small insects (at a rate of very many each day); they mature sexually, and then mate.
Male dragonflies defend territories while awaiting females or actively search for them. When the male finds a female, he grasps the female with the clasp-like holders at the end of his abdomen. Mating occurs in the unique “wheel” position. The females can use ovipositors to insert their eggs into plant stems or just scatter them over the water, sometimes ovipositing while in tandem flight with the male. The larvae that hatch develop without need of parenting.
The Audubon Society’s Insects and Spiders field guide can be helpful, but this and other older insect guides cover only a few of the desert species of dragonflies. Kathy Biggs’ guide, Common Dragonflies of the Southwest, A Beginner's Pocket Guide is very helpful in identifying our desert species.
It does include the damselflies and almost all of the desert species of dragonflies. Many of the pictures it includes are by SW desert inhabitants themselves like Doug Aguillard, Bob Behrstock, Doug Danforth, Rosser Garrison, Dustin Huntington, Greg Lasley, Peter Moulton, Bob Parks, and Steve Potter. It uses the new common names that were adopted by the DSA (Dragonfly Society of the Americas) in the fall of 1996. Common Dragonflies of the Southwest, A Beginner's Pocket Guide is of a size where it can be taken into the field with you.
Beware: all the nature guides written before 1996 use non-standardized common names. Everyone should use the new standardized names; the hobby/study of dragonflying will thereby avoid the confusing proliferation of common names that the butterflies and native plants have developed.
The Southwest deserts offer many great places to begin/continue the study of dragonflies, and some of the nation’s most beautiful species occur here, such as the painted damsel or the filigree skimmer. So, just find a spot near water on a calm, sunny day; any natural or artificial body of water will do. Desert parks would be an excellent destination. The easiest species of dragonflies for beginners to observe and learn usually occur at still waters such as lakes and pond, as they tend to perch, while those along the rivers aren't always so obliging.
Dragonflies need clean water in which to breed, so treat our waterways kindly. To encourage them in your yard, a pond is perfect, and the less fish in it, the better for the Odonata. Native water plants are easy to include, but even ponds with ornamental plants will provide some habitat for them. Short of a pond (even a half barrel will attract damselflies), provide strong perches in sunny areas from which they can pursue their prey. And of course, avoid the use of pesticides! Since dragonflies eat mosquitoes, even as underwater nymph, they can be used to help control those mosquito species, including those that carry West Nile disease, but they alone will not completely wipe out a mosquito population.
Like hummingbirds, and unlike the butterflies, dragonflies can maneuver quickly, making rapid zigzag maneuvers. Occasionally though, you’ll find one basking in the sun or claiming and defending a territory on a pond or creek where it can be observed at leisure. Otherwise, enjoy the aerial antics of one of Earth's very first fliers: indeed, they predate the dinosaurs and are among our most ancient creatures.
The following are a few of the most common dragonfly species found the Southwest deserts.
Reminder: 25 mm equals one inch.
Dragonflies are heavy-bodied and usually larger than damselflies; their huge eyes are very close together and they are strong fliers. At rest, they hold their wings out flat to the sides, or slightly forward and downward.
Size: large; length 52-61 mm
Male: all red-orange including the inside halves of its wings. The thorax and abdomen are unstriped, the eyes, face, legs, stigma and appendages are all red-orange; the wings are reddish out to slightly beyond nodus (slight bend in wing) with a red streak along the leading edge
Female: not as colorful having an orange streak along the leading edge of wings only
Behavior: hawks insects from perch and holds it wings out flat when at rest
Habitat: ponds, lakes, slow streams, pools of rivers
SW flight period: February - December
SW distribution: all Southwest
Size: medium; length 33-43 mm
Male: quite variable; usually an olive-green/gray and reddish plaid which turns redder as it ages; it has unique white "porthole-like" spots low along the abdomen sides; the thoracic stripes are not always complete but they always end in a yellow spot; the eyes are a Cranberry color and the stigma is bicolored
Female: less red; more muted &/or pastel
Behavior: they hawk insects from a perch and it rests with its wings held downward and forward
Habitat: all slow water
SW flight period: year round, migratory; may over winter
SW distribution: all Southwestern states
Size: medium; length 32 - 45 mm, wingspan 48 - 50 mm
Male: powdery blue, often developing a dark tip; the striped thorax can become all blue with age; the eyes are teal green or blue; it has a distinctive white ‘face’ with a small black area between the eyes; the wings can show brown tinted areas
Female: rectangular buff marks on dark background; no other is like it; white face
Behavior: they hawk insects from a perch and it usually rests with its wings held downward and forward
Habitat: ponds, slow waters
SW flight period: February - November
SW distribution: all Southwest
While enjoying the dazzling dragonflies of the desert, you can have fun, be outdoors, and even contribute to a growing body of new knowledge! Enjoy!
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