- MassWildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program
- Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
As spring moves towards summer and temperatures start to rise, native insects begin to take flight. Perhaps none are as extraordinary as dragonflies and damselflies. These majestic flyers don’t always look like their adult forms. For the past 10–36 months, wingless dragonfly and damselfly larvae (or nymphs) have been living underwater in rivers, lakes, and ponds. These juveniles swim and stalk through the submerged muddy terrain in search of other aquatic insects, tadpoles, and even small fish to prey upon. As they grow, nymphs undergo a series of moltings, shedding their insect skeletons for a slightly larger one each time. Nymphs of our largest dragonfly—the common green darner—can be as long as 3 inches before transitioning to an adult!
When young dragonflies and damselflies are ready to emerge from natal waterbodies, they crawl out of the water and transform into adults. This metamorphosis does not occur within a cocoon, nor does it take days like with butterflies. Instead, adult dragonflies and damselflies hatch out of their own juvenile skins by cracking joints along the back of their exoskeleton and pushing themselves, back first, out of their nymphal form. The emerged dragonfly or damselfly rests in place, pumps blood into its wings to help them harden and spread, and finally takes to the sky. The entire process occurs within hours from the time they crawled out of the water.
In the air, dragonflies are the most skillful of insect flyers. They can move in virtually any direction. This is a skill that is nearly unique to dragonflies and damselflies and makes capturing prey rather easy. Dragonflies prey upon other large insects including damselflies and even other dragonflies. Smaller damselflies emerge in the same manner as their larger cousins, but are more delicate flyers as adults. Damselflies are equally efficient hunters though, and are among the greatest predators of annoying mosquitoes.
Telling the difference between a damselfly and a dragonfly is fairly simple. Damselflies (on the left in the above image) have a more slender abdomen (tail) and hold their wings together behind their back. Dragonflies have much larger, heavier bodies, and hold their two sets of wings splayed out to the sides, as you can see on the right in the above image. Similar to birds, male dragonflies and damselflies are often more colorful than females—a trait evolved to help attract a mate.
Over 160 types of dragonflies and damselflies live in Massachusetts. They come in nearly as many color patterns. Simply sit near, walk close to, or boat along the edge of a lake, pond, river, or small stream to be rewarded with a beautiful sight! Bring along some binoculars to help get a close-up view of these interesting and colorful insects.