What dragonfly nymphs know about teenage angst

Photo by Flickr user Steve Begin

You know, just when you thought you knew a dragonfly, they surprise the heck out of you by having babies. Then those babies morph into progressively larger, weirder nymphs and wreak progressively more havoc on larvae living in streams. It’s a little unsettling. But that’s life on the playground, kids, and that’s just how it goes. That’s your moral of this story today.

But first, a little taxonomy: Dragonflies belong to the order Odonata, which comes from a Greek word meaning “toothed,” and refers to the mandibles of these carnivorous insects. The infraorder name Anisoptera comes from the Greek anisos, which means ‘unequal’ and pteron, meaning ‘wing.’ This won’t help you identify them in the nymph stage, however, because they all look like freaky, wingless monsters.

Look at this cute little baby dragonfly. Don't you just want to cuddle it? What? No? Well neither does its mother. Maybe that's why it eats other insects.
Look at this cute little baby dragonfly. Don’t you just want to cuddle it? What? No? Well neither did its mother. Maybe that’s why it eats other insects. Photo by Cyndy Sims Parr.

Where they live: Ponds and slow-flowing rivers near aquatic vegetation or in calmer areas of streams.

You can identify them by: Sheer weirdness. And they don’t have tails like damselfly, mayfly or stonefly nymphs. Probably because their butts are busy doing other things.

If water bugs had yearbooks, dragonflies would be voted: “Most Likely to Commit a Violent Crime.”

And would be runner-up for: “Most Likely to Write a Coming of Age Novel.” Seriously, these naiads take forever—like up to 95% of their life cycle—just molting into progressively bigger forms. When they hatch from an egg, they look stout, dull-colored, and frumpy. No resplendent wings or colorful patterns here. About the only thing they share with their parents is an insatiable thirst for other insects.

Which brings us to: The part where we scare the pants off of you.

Slow-mo dragonfly nymph labium (lower lip) in action. The actual strike only takes 10 milliseconds. From Bulanbeck.
Slow-mo dragonfly nymph labium (lower lip) in action. The actual strike takes 10 milliseconds. From Bulanbeck.

Aaagh, look at that! Oh, it’s too horrible! Oh, but you can’t look away! Dragonfly naiads have gigantic hooked labium, or extendable lower lips, that snatch victims in milliseconds. Once again, the rectum aids in this process.  (It also helps with breathing. And moving. Dragonflies are probably the butt of a lot of jokes.)

What they eat: Larvae of bugs, including other dragonflies and mosquitoes. And maybe the souls of litterbugs.

Which is good for us because: Nobody likes mosquitoes. Or litterbugs.

For more information, visit the Tree of Life project entry on Odonata and University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web.

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