If you had to name the most successful hunter in the animal kingdom, which animal would you pick? the lion? the shark? The lion captures its prey only about 25% of the time. Those gazelles are fast! Even with their huge mouths and all those teeth, sharks miss over 50% of the time. Those fish may be small but they can swim quickly and dart behind coral.
Here’s a hint, they are ranked right up there with butterflies and lady bugs as a favorite insect. They come in a variety of beautiful, shimmery colors, sport delicate wings and love to hang out near water. While dainty in appearance, this is truly a case where looks can be deceiving. Give up?
Scientists believe that the most successful hunter is the dragonfly. They look dainty and not very threatening, but their success rate is close to 95% when targeting a tasty morsel such as a fly or a mosquito, even in midair! Next time you are at the lake, watch them in action. They are amazing.
How do they do it? It is a combination of amazing eyesight and acrobatic flying skills. While their other senses such as hearing and smell are very weak, their eyes are two huge orbs that make up most of their head. They have over 30,000 facets (like lenses) that help them focus in on their next meal. Their very small but specialized brains are able to combine all of the images they receive to guide the dragonfly directly to their target. The eyes are shaped and positioned such that they can see their next meal as they fly toward it, past it, and even above or below it. All without turning their head!
The wings of dragonflies are unique in that they can be used independently. This allows them to swoop, and dive, spin and pivot, hover and zoom, even fly upside down and backwards. Their flying speed can reach over 30 mph. A dragonfly’s prey never even knows what’s coming.
They see. They fly. They catch and eat. All other body functions like smelling, hearing and even walking take a back seat to sight and flight.
Dragonflies begin their lives in the water as nymphs. Like a tadpole is different from a frog, a nymph is very different from its final adult form. A nymph lives in water, breathes through gills and uses extendable jaws that it quickly throws out to capture and draw back its prey. The nymph is just as efficient in the water as the adult is in the air. Dragonflies spend most of their life in this larval stage, up to five years! What we see as the dragonfly lives only five or six months.
Like the monarch butterfly, some dragonfly species migrate between the northern U.S. and southern Mexico. Others travel up to 10,000 miles between Africa and India. Like the monarch, these migrations happen over multiple generations.
Did you know that the oldest known dragonflies date from over 300 million years ago? Based on fossils, some of these creatures grew to the size of a large bird. Just imagine a predator with 95% success rate the size of a seagull, zipping around our lakes and ponds. I’m glad we have our version of these beautiful creatures air-dancing and flitting around our lakes in the hill country.
Final note, dragonflies and damselflies are closely related, but it is easy to tell them apart. Dragonflies are the stronger predator, and better fliers, always holding their wings out, ready to zoom off in pursuit of a tasty meal. A damselfly is smaller, more dainty, and folds in its wings when at rest. And if you are lucky to get close a close up view, you can see that their eyes are smaller, with space between them.