An Ode to Odonates

Frosted Whiteface © Harry Abraham
Frosted Whiteface © Harry Abraham

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This article was featured in the Summer 2018 issue of Explore, our quarterly magazine for members.
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What Makes Odonates So Magical?

Plentiful and easy to spot, the dragonflies and damselflies that make up the order Odonata are the largest insects you’re likely to see in Massachusetts.

In folklore from around the world, dragonflies symbolize many things—good luck in some places and bad luck in others. Regardless of their symbolic significance, odonates are a beautiful and fascinating part of our insect community. 

Dragonfly closeup © Shawn O'Bryan
© Shawn O'Bryan

There are more than 5,000 known species of dragonflies, with over 180 recorded in New England alone. They come in a dazzling array of colors, some even appearing iridescent in sunlight. Best of all, adult odonates eat a steady diet of other flying insects, including those pesky mosquitoes and black flies.

Dragonflies & Damselflies

Anisoptera (dragonflies) and Zygoptera (damselflies) share a lot in common. Both species have two pairs of large, transparent, membranous wings of about equal size that allow them to fly in almost any direction and even hover like a helicopter. 

As with all insects, they have three main segments—head, thorax, and abdomen—that make up their bodies. Both have elongated, cylindrical abdomens. And they have large, compound eyes that allow them to see nearly every angle (except directly behind them).

Common Species in Massachusetts 

More than 160 species of odonates occur in Massachusetts, but here are six common varieties you can look for. For odonate ethusiasts, learn more about how you can participate in our sanctuaries-based odonate monitoring project at massaudubon.org/odonates.

Twelve-spotted Skimmer © Helene Grogan
Twelve-spotted Skimmer © Helene Grogan
 
Widow Skimmer © Ron Verville
Widow Skimmer © Ron Verville
Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella)   Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)
     
Halloween Pennant © Cheryl Rose
Halloween Pennant © Cheryl Rose
 
Eastern Pondhawk © Ken Conway
Eastern Pondhawk © Ken Conway
Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina)   Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis)
     
Bluet (Photo: Kristen Foresto)
Bluet
 
Ebony Jewelwing © Cheryl Rose
Ebony Jewelwing © Cheryl Rose
Bluet (Enallagma species)   Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata)

Which is Which?

While they may look very similar at first glance, it's fairly easy to spot the differences between dragonflies and damselflies. 

Dragonfly illustration
Dragonfly illustration

Here’s a quick guide to the unique characteristics of Anisoptera (dragonflies) and Zygoptera (damselflies)—and how you can tell them apart.

Dragonflies (Anisoptera)

  • Larger and more robust than damselflies. 
  • They hold their wings in a horizontal position when at rest. 
  • Larger, more closely set eyes occupy most of the space on their head. 
  • They’re powerful, straight fliers because their rear wings have a broader base and are larger than their front pair.
Damselfly illustration
Damselfly illustration

Damselflies (Zygoptera)

  • Usually smaller than dragonflies. 
  • Typically hold their wings together above the thorax and abdomen when at rest, except for the aptly named Spread-winged damselflies. 
  • Their smaller, widely separated eyes project to the side. 
  • They’re often weak, irregular fliers because their wings and flight muscles are smaller and more delicate.