When I was growing up as a girl on our Virginia farm, my father was always testing me to see if I remembered the names for different types of trees and birds. He took immense pleasure in watching the birds flock in the feeders outside the kitchen window, studying them in his piles of bird books and celebrating the siting of a new bird species. He often stressed the importance of studying nature and all her creatures in an effort to both understand and learn the secrets of nature’s ways. His knowledge of all the plants, trees and animal species was confirmation of his passionate studies.
While I have a great passion for dragonflies, I could not tell you upon siting a dragonfly as to which family it belongs. In honor of my father, I have taken the time to learn more and identify the various families of dragonflies. Here is a look at the seven main families of dragonflies which include Skimmers, Clubtails, Cruisers, Darners, Spiketails, Petaltails and Emeralds. I am certain our ability to identify these winged creatures will enhance our delight in watching dragonflies.
Skimmers, from the Libellulidae family, are perhaps both the most numerous and easiest to find of dragonflies with almost a thousand species of skimmers throughout the world. It is estimated at least one hundred of these species make their home in North America, and about thirty of these reside solely in the states of Texas and Florida. While skimmer dragonflies are generally small in size (the smallest dragonfly ever found was a skimmer), they make up for their lesser size with vivid colors. Skimmers often lack the noticeable iridescent sheen, but their bright hues can include every color of the rainbow along with brown and black shades. Akin to other animal species, the females are usually less colorful than the males. Male skimmers are quite territorial, and will tend to stake out a particular place to watch and guard. It is often the skimmer males who engage in what simulates an aerial dogfight as they soar and streak through the air with wild and daring maneuvers. Despite their defensive nature, male skimmers can be easy to approach while perched in their favorite spot compared to the less territorial and flighty females who like to hang out near the water.
The clubtail dragonfly, from the Gomphidae family, has the distinguishing feature of an enlarged abdomen area resembling the shape of a club, thus its clubtail name. Clubtails tend to be larger in size than skimmers with close to one hundred species in North America. They can sometimes be found perching in the open, and seldom hang out in the same spot. Their wary nature is further protected by the camouflage of their earth tone colors, and their preference for reclusive perching and flying habits. Thus, clubtails are some of the most challenging dragonflies to identify.
The small species of dragonflies called Cruisers, from the Macromiidae family, represent their restless habits as they continuously cruise river and stream habitats. While over one hundred species of cruisers are found in this family, only about nine species reside in North America. A distinguishing feature of cruisers is their longer, spider-like front and middle legs, and they can be more easily identified by their tendency to perch vertically. While some cruisers are very subdued in color, other family members are exceptionally colorful and striking. Some cruisers possess the iridescent sheen on their thorax while others possess illuminating green eyes which assist in identification.
The most apparent characteristics of Darner dragonflies, from the Aeshnidae family, are their preference for hanging vertically when perched on branches, their closely fit large eyes on top of their heads and color combinations of blue, green, brown and black. All darners are bold predators and very strong fliers. Most darners are large in size though there are smaller species in the family. With over four hundred species of darners worldwide, about forty species are found in North America. Two of the most popular darners are known as the Common Green Darner while an extremely rare darner, the Amazon Darner, has only been occasionally sited in a few southern states. Other unusual darners include the Comet Darner which displays a long red tail, and the largest of all darners, the Giant Darner, is a rare species residing in the southwest.
Spiketail dragonflies form a small group, from the Cordulegastridae family, composed of about eight species. They derive their name from the vertical up and down “spiking” movement of the female as she releases her eggs into the soil near the edge of water sources. Unlike the vertical perching of darners, spiketails tend to hang at a slant angle to the ground beneath them. These extremely evasive spiketails are uncommon among dragonflies, but a delight to find, especially the ones with brilliant blue eyes.
Among the oldest living species of dragonflies are the Petaltail from the Petaluridae family. Petaltail fossils often appear in strata dating back to the dinosaurs. These are ancient dragonflies! Numerous, extinct species of petaltails have been uncovered as fossils while it is calculated that eleven species still exist today with two of these species found in the American west and one in the east. Unlike darner dragonflies, the eyes of petaltails are separated far apart allowing for easy identification. And unlike the colorful skimmers, petaltails have muted colors with which to blend into their surrounding environment. Petaltails derive their name from the petal-like attachments on the top of their abdomen. The least cautious among dragonflies, petaltails will allow one to approach them for close observation while often flying from their perch to land on the observer. I am quite certain the dragonfly experience I encountered one summer, which prompted me to create my first dragonfly website, was inspired by petaltails. Their captivating curiosity captured my attention, and my heart.
Finally, we have the Emeralds, from the Corduliidae family, of which fifty species reside in North America out of the more than two hundred species worldwide. Like rare emerald gems, emeralds dragonflies are scarce and hard to find. It is thought some of the emeralds species may only fly for short periods of time, and their short flight seasons contribute to their elusive sitings. One’s best chance to find emeralds may be limited to sunrise and a short time after sunset. Their vivid emerald green eyes give them their name, and emeralds often display bodies with an iridescent green or bronze luster. You will usually find patterns in the wings belonging to this phantom species. I have yet to encounter a dragonfly with patterned wings, and will be most excited if I ever discover one of these emerald gems.
For the most part, dragonflies are abundant and easy to see if you are paying attention and looking for them. Keep your eyes wide open on sunny days whenever you are near ponds, lakes, marshes, streams and rivers. While dragonflies have a preference to be near water, their large presence can surprise you atop a desert mesa or in an open field far from water. Dragonfly encounters are full of wonder and meaning as they almost always bring us a special message.
Happy dragonfly watching!