Types of Dragonflies

Dragonflies and damselflies, insects in the scientific order Odonata, inhabit water areas throughout the United States. In fact, the presence of Odonata species in an area provides an indicator of water quality.

Size differentiates damselflies and dragonflies, with dragonflies (suborder Anisoptera), the larger group of the two. Healthy populations mean healthy water.

Dragonfly identification, while not as popular as butterfly identification, continues to draw a crowd of enthusiasts. Odonata identification starts by noting that in addition to size, wing position also helps differentiate dragonflies and damselflies. Usually dragonflies rest with their flat, like an airplane. Most damselflies at rest keep their wings closed against their body or a bit above the body. Spreadwing Damselflies represent the exception to the general wing position rule.

North American dragonfly identification history extends back to the nineteenth century, the time when most species were documented.

Nonetheless, new dragonfly species continue to be recorded, and a changing climate means that some southern species will continue to migrate north to the United States.

Given the potential change in numbers, recent research, documents three hundred and forty two (342) different North American dragonfly species. They fit into seven different families, each containing a variety of genera and species.

Over one-third of native dragonfly species, approximately one hundred and ten (110) belong to the family Libellulidae, or skimmers, the ever present dragonflies at local ponds.

Round numbers represent a useful way to organize one's thinking about groups of insects, and world wide, approximately 2,500 damselfly species have been identified, fitting into twenty different genera.

With the exception of a couple of species in the Protoneuridae family called threadtails, all of the damselflies in the United States fit into one of three different families, based primarily on wing patterns.

  • Broad-winged Damselflies (Calopterygidae)
  • Narrow-winged Damselflies (Coenagrionidae)
  • Spreadwing Damselflies (Lestidae)

The slide show presents pictures and information covering all seven dragonfly families and the three common damselfly families that provides an identification starting point.

Dragonfly Facts

  • Fossil records date the dragonfly back 300 million years.
  • The largest dragonfly recorded from fossil records had a wing span of about two and one-half feet.
  • There are approximately 5,000 different species of dragonflies in the world today, split almost evenly between true dragonflies and damselflies. Most species live in tropical areas, however they can be found in every continent except Antarctica.
  • The United States hosts approximately 450 different Odonata species.
  • Dragonfly life span extends anywhere from about six months to several years. Most of the dragonfly life span is spent in the water as a nymph. During this period, which can last up to a couple of years, it sheds its skin many times. Finally it crawls onto land to break out of its skin as a full fledged dragonfly.
  • Dragonflies get categorized as beneficial insects because they eat so many harmful insects such as mosquitoes, gnats, ants termites, along with other insects and arachnids.
  • Dragonflies do not harm people. They do not bite and they do not sting.
  • Estimates differ on dragonfly flyig speed, with estimates ranging between 30-60 mph.
  • Dragonflies can fly like a helicopter, moving in all directions, forward, backward, up and down. They can also hover.
  • Sight is the dragonfly's most important sense. Each eye can contain up to 30,000 tiny lenses.

© 2006-2014 Patricia A. Michaels.

Video Pick