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The Pageantry of Dragonflies

By Robert A. Behrstock

Dragonflies seem to be everywhere. Their bulbous eyes, shimmering wings and pastel hues decorate corporate logos, Tiffany lamps, earrings, clothing, ceramics, yard ornaments and playful tattoos. Slender-bodied with four long wings, they’re easily identified, and even the most avowed non-biologist is likely to recognize a swarm of “darning needles.”

Their dashing flight — moments of hovering, interspersed with darting advances and impossibly sharp turns — distracts anglers, inspires poets, fascinates children and challenges engineers.

To biologists, dragonflies — and damselflies, their smaller kin — are living fossils. Collectively referred to as Odonata (“the toothed ones” — alluding to the fierce jaws of the larvae), they are among the most ancient living groups of animals, changing only slightly since dinosaurs appeared some 230 million years ago. With 28-inch wingspans, early dragonflies ruled the air until the appearance of flying reptiles and early birds.

Close-focus binoculars, a fairly new tool employed by birders and butterfly watchers, make it much easier to observe the hunting and mating behaviors of wild dragonflies and to identify them without the use of an insect net. Only recently, common names were created for the more than 400 species inhabiting North America, aiding communication among amateurs who were often put off by difficult-to-pronounce scientific names.

The varied climates and habitats of the Lone Star State offer a wealth of dragons and damsels. Currently 213 species, more than in any other state, are known to fly in Texas, and new ones are added each year. East Texas is home to the most species; the Rio Grande Valley supports a variety of tropical forms and the Panhandle and far West provide an array of Great Plains and desert species.

For most of their lives — several weeks to several years — dragonfly larvae live under water, breathing with gills and pursuing small fish, worms and other prey. After the adults emerge, they become aerial hunters until they die, usually several weeks to several months later. In order to mate and lay eggs, the adults stay close to water. Rivers, swamps and marshes, reservoirs, roadside ditches, woodland edges and even backyard ponds are productive habitats to search. The following selection of photos represents species that may be encountered in various parts of Texas.

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