Wilderness Underfoot: The insect world's hungriest hunters

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StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111643740014779.jpg’, ”, ‘The widow skimmer– Libellula luctuosa. As appearances go, dragonflies are some of the most frightening insects. Although they aren’t armed with stingers, their long-slender tails – actually abdomens – just seem to look as if they would be quite dangerous. Their large, vacant eyes are eerily robotic. The dragonfly’s appearance has often been compared to that of an attack helicopter. But unlike a helicopter, its flight is silent, and if you spend any time near the water’s edge, it’s easy to find yourself startled by the sudden appearance of one of these creatures. Because people are often frightened by them, dragonflies have been awarded such nicknames as “snake doctors” (based on a myth that they will warn snakes of approaching danger, or that they resurrect dead snakes), “devil’s darning needles” (based on the belief that they stitch together the lips of the wicked, or that they sew up children’s ears), and “horse stingers” and “mule killers” (based on the mistaken impression that they have deadly stingers). These insects are actually harmless to humans. That might not have been true if they hadn’t evolved down in size since they first appeared, more than 300 million years ago: ancient dragonfly wingspans reached 3 feet in width, and they could have taken small animals for prey!’);
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Dragonflies are skilled predators with big appetites for other insects

Many people are fearful of dragonflies, but there is no need to be. They have no interest in humans and aren’t dangerous to us in any way. What they prey on is other insects, and their predatory accomplishments and insatiable appetites begin from the time they hatch.

Larval dragonflies – or “nymphs” – are tough little creatures. Although dragonfly eggs are laid in or near water, it isn’t unusual for water levels to drop. If the eggs hatch in a dry location, the tiny nymphs will jump, hop and crawl until they find water. Like the ugly monsters in the Aliens films, these creatures are outfitted with retractable lower jaws that can lunge out to snatch their prey. Nymphs feed on other water insects, tiny fish, and tadpoles. They spend their entire larval stage under water, taking up to four years to reach the adult stage when their wings emerge.

As adults they take to the skies, after which they have little more than food and mating on their minds. To hunt, the dragonfly forms a basket with its legs and scoops up other flying insects. It may also use its large lower jaw to snatch its prey, much as it did as a nymph.

The males can be very aggressive in protecting their territory, and they will show off by lifting their tails in the air and making threat displays. After breeding, they’ll guard the females to keep other males from breeding with them.

From the May 18-24, 2005, issue

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