Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Six reasons to love dragonflies

            When the joyful noise of spring subsides for the summer and most birds remain hidden to raise their broods, more and more wildlife enthusiasts are turning their attention to another of nature’s spectacular aerialists – dragonflies. Dressed in brilliant, iridescent colors and with names like ringed bog haunter, unicorn clubtail and sparkling jewelwing, dragonflies and their close relatives damselflies are easy to get hooked on once you start paying attention.
            Biologist Ginger Brown, Rhode Island’s leading dragonfly expert, who some call the dragon lady, says it’s the “combination of a strikingly handsome insect and their really dynamic behaviors that attract the general public to dragonflies. They’re the hawks of the insect world.”
            For those who aren’t yet convinced, here are six reasons why dragonflies are the most fascinating creatures in the insect world and deserving of your interest.

1. Their flight skills are unparalleled.
            Dragonflies can fly forward and backward and hover in place. They can stop on a dime, rapidly change directions, and fly upside down. The military has even studied their flight skills to improve the design of helicopters.  Those flight skills come in handy as they cruise around local ponds and swamps hunting for other flying insects that they capture and consume on the wing. They even catch and eat other dragonflies, though dragonflies are themselves eaten by birds, frogs and other animals.

2. They have an unusual life cycle.
            Most adult dragons and damsels only fly around for three or four weeks before dying. But before they do so, the females lay eggs in a pond or stream, and the larva that hatch from those eggs live in the water for nearly a year before climbing out of the water and transforming into the beautiful adult insect. “The adult form of a dragonfly is the shortest part of its life,” Brown said. “The whole mysterious larval stage is what most people aren’t aware of, and it takes place entirely under water.”

3. They’re ancient creatures.
            Dragonflies have been around virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years and were some of the first winged insects to evolve. They witnessed the evolution and extinction of the dinosaurs. Although the wingspan of most dragonflies today is between 2 and 5 inches, some of the earliest dragonfly species were about the size of crows.

4. There are more than 5,000 known species of dragonflies in the world.
Until recently, no one knew how many of those 5,000 species were found in Rhode Island. So Brown led a six-year census of dragonflies and damselflies in the state beginning in 1998. Her 55 volunteers visited every pond, stream and wetland in the region to collect and identify specimens, and they found 138 different species, including 22 that were not known to live in Rhode Island prior to the census. Burrillville (110) and South Kingstown (108) have the most species of any community in the state, while Newport (25) and Central Falls (26) have the fewest.

5. Their sturdy wings make them safe to handle.
            Dragonflying is becoming an increasingly popular hobby, in part because the challenge of catching them is so fun. Unlike butterflies, their wings are sturdy, making them easy to handle and release without harming them. The key to capturing dragonflies is to use a long-handled insect net and to swing quickly from behind and immediately twist the handle, ensuring that the captured insect cannot fly out of the net. Keeping your catch in the net is easier than getting it in there in the first place, though. Dragonflies have hundreds of eyes, so they can see you better than you can see them. And with their remarkable flight skills, you’re likely to swing and miss more often than you’ll want to admit.

6. Their typical behaviors make them easy to observe.
            Dragonflies often perch out in the open on exposed vegetation, making it easy to get good long looks at them. They are also very approachable, and they will often approach you as well, sometimes even landing on you for great photo opportunities. (Don’t worry about their reputation for sewing children’s lips together; that’s an old wives tale. Their mouth parts aren’t strong enough to break through human skin.) Best of all, when they’re feeding, they typically follow the same hunting route around and around a pond or up and down an open corridor. Once you identify their route, you can move in close, and they will fly right by you again and again.
            For Brown, the exciting part of dragonflying is that everything they do in their adult life happens while they’re flying. “You can see them hunting food, consuming food, pursuing a female, mating, laying eggs,” she said. “Almost their entire life cycle can be seen at your local pond. So just go to a pond on a nice summer day and you’ll see it all.”

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on June 22, 2016.

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