How to Identify Clubtail Dragonflies

picture of a male grappletail dragonfly

Second only to the skimmers (Liebellulidae) in number of species, approximately one hundred clubtail species (Gomphidae) fly around the water areas of North America. The common name derives from the comparatively, irregular appearance of the tail at the bottom of the abdomen. However, in physical terms, it’s really the separated eyes that characterize the family members.

Gomphidae species also go by common names such as spinyleg, snaketail, ringtail and grappletail.

Most, if not all Gomphidae species exhibit local geographical ranges. Each genera and species chooses a particular ecosystem and tends to stay put. For example, approximately twenty percent of the species have a range that extends to only one or two states. The Acuminate Snaketail (Ophiogomphus acuminatus) is documented for Alabama and Tennessee. The Chesapeake Snaketail is documented for Maryland.

Unsurprisingly, most clubtail species adapt to slow and fast moving water areas at all elevations. The good news for tourists to almost any state is that with a little walking and patience, a picture of a new Clubtail dragonfly species to add to a life list can almost always be right around the next corner.

The remainder of this page presents pictures and information covering a representative species of clubtails in the genera with the non-clubtail common names, i.e., the Spinylegs, Forceptails, Ringtails and Grappletails. Please press the Clubtail Pictures button for additional pictures and information covering representative species that have Clubtail as the common name.

It starts with the Grappletail (Octogomphus specularis, North America’s sole Octogomphus species). They inhabit cool mountain streams from British Columbia, south through California.

The picture at the top of the page shows a side view of the male with white nose and white thorax stripes. There is also a yellow form.

Dragonhunters


picture of a Dragonhuter dragonfly. Credit Fun Kynd Flickr
Dragonhunter (Hagenius brevistylus). A very large eastern Clubtail and the sole representative of the Hagenius genus. Our largest, most powerful dragonfly is the Dragonhunter, the largest member of the
clubtail family. It hunts other dragonflies and is immune to bee and wasp stings

Forceptails


picture of a two-striped forceptail dragonfly

At the opposite end of North America, three forceptail species (Aphylla) roam near slow moving waters.

The large size, blue eyes, and relatively bright colors of the Two-striped Forceptail (Aphylla williamsoni) in the fourth picture help to catch the eye of careful observers.

Males are a bit more colorful than females, having the reddish bottom of the abdomen contrast with the darker patterned abdominal top. The female abdomen is a more consistent dark color.

They fly from mid-summer to late fall.

picture of a Narrow-striped Forceptail (Aphylla protracta) dragonfly
Caught flying, the Narrow-striped Forceptail (Aphylla protracta).

Snaketails

picture of a Great Basin Snaketail
Sixteen Snaketail Dragonfly species (Ophiogomphus) initially get recognised by the presence of a pronounced yellow and/or green thorax.

Snaketails adapt to multiple ecosystems, with species found in slow and fast moving water areas at most elevations.

The Great Basin Snaketail (Ophiogomphus morrisoni), for example, live in the high mountain areas of the Southern Cascades (Oregon) and Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains (California and Nevada). Some individuals are also known to fly down to the valleys.

The picture shows a side view of a male with a hint of the long patch of white along the side that starts at the top of the abdomen.

The yellow tips of the tail with their small, dark dots, are good field identification clues.

picture of a pale snaketail dragonfly
The Pale Snaketail (Ophiogomphus severus), on the other hand, prefers low elevation mountain streams throughout the West, partially into the Midwest.

Males and females look similar, with the green thorax serving as the primary field identification clue.

Bison Snaketails look similar, however they have a distinct brown stripe on the thorax.

picture of a sinuous-snaketail dragonfly
Sinuous Snaketail

Ringtails


picture of a serpent ringtail dragonfly
Six species of Ringtail dragonflies (Erpetogomphus) have been documented in the United States. Four of the six species are located in the Southwest, including the Serpent Ringtail in the picture. Populations of the Serpent Ringtail live in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

picture of a Eastern Ringtail dragonfly. Credit Melissa McMasters Flickr
The species directly above this paragraph, the Eastern Ringtail has a range that extends across most of the area east of the Rocky Mountains. The final species, the White-belted Ringtail lives in the West, including the Rocky Mountain states and California, Oregon and Washington.

Sanddragons


picture of a Common Sanddragon. Credit Aaron Carlson, Flickr
Four Sanddragon species live in the United States, with the Common Sanddragon in the picture, having the widest range. It can be found in most states east of the Rocky Mountains.

picture of a Gray Sanddragon dragonfly
The Gray Sanddragon in the above picture has a range limited to a few Rocky Mountain and Pacific Coast states. The remaining two species, the Tawny Sanddragon and Belle’s Sanddragon have very limited Southeast ranges. The Tawny Sanddragon, for example, only flies in Florida.

Spinylegs


picture of a Black-shouldered Spinylegs. Credit: Pondhawk, Flickr
Spinylegs are strictly an Eastern genera of clubtails with three species documented. The picture shows a Black-shouldered Spinylegs, the most common species. It can be found in almost all states east of the Rocky Mountains.

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