The orange-tinted dragonfly flirts with the river. He darts towards it as though to plunge into the water, but merely kisses the surface. He repeats this action in quick succession. His transparent wings gleam as they catch the sun. And then he flies past a bridge and glides over the traffic. Cars, bikes and trucks roar past below him. But no one notices him.

With bulging eyes, a slender body and patterned wings, the spry dragonfly appears to be in some happy space as it floats about after a rain. They can be seen in large numbers around ponds, lakes, rivers, wells and puddles after a shower. Spare time to observe these insects and you will easily fall for their fluttering wings and smooth movements in the sky.

So, what is the world of the dragonfly made of? Water, mostly.

The insects are aquatic, says K.A. Subramanian, a scientist with the Zoological Survey of India. “The larvae live in water and the adults are terrestrial,” he says in an email interview. “Adult female dragonflies lay eggs in water. The eggs hatch and develop into larvae.” These feed on tadpoles and small fish. Suhirtha Muhil, who is doing a PhD at Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History on ‘odonata’, an order of insects that consists of dragonflies and damselflies, is fascinated by these insects. She spends several hours during the day observing dragonflies by water-bodies. “They like to bask in the sun,” she says. “You can see them on rocks by the riverside with their wings spread and tail lifted. They sometimes sit this way for up to two hours.”

Called thattaan in Tamil, the dragonfly sometimes falls prey to little boys who use it as a plaything. There also is a theory that these insects can predict rain. Subramanian and Suhirtha dispel this as a myth. “Some species such as the Wandering Glider can be seen in large congregations just before and after monsoon,” says Subramanian. They are out there since water is their home; it is around water that a male meets a female and mates; it’s here that the young are born and raised. It is a “folk belief that they can predict the rains,” he adds. The insects tend to migrate like birds. Says Subramanian: “Some species even undertake trans-oceanic migration. Equally interesting is their aerodynamic skills and vision, which have no comparison in animal world.”

Suhirtha has observed dragonflies in striking colours. “They can be seen in black and yellow, violet, blue and black, red, yellow, amber… we can also see a spot of colour at the tip of their wings.” Male dragonflies are protective of their females. They “establish territories near their breeding habitat and actively patrol and defend it from other males”, says Subramanian.

A typical day in the life of a dragonfly consists of feeding on smaller insects. They’re out as long as there’s sun for company — they are fond of warm and clear weather. Most of them call it a day by sundown. At night, they “roost among vegetation or high up in the canopy”. Suhirtha’s research is aimed at delving into some habits of dragonflies that are yet unknown. For instance, what is their foraging behaviour like? She admits that studying the insects is a challenge, since they are “too swift to observe”. The dragonfly has a lot to worry about in life — it has to watch its back constantly, since birds prey on the adults. However, with their swift movements and sharp turns, the insects outsmart their predators.

She feels that the dragonfly “leads a complex life. But it makes it appear easy”. Subramanian explains that a dragonfly spends only a few weeks to few months of its life as an adult — it spends most part of its life as larva. The carefree dragonfly we see out in the sun is nearing the end of its life...

Dragonfly facts:

* Dragonflies and damselflies are collectively called odonates. While the two differ physically, their living patterns are almost similar

* India has over 500 known species of odonates

* Dragonflies lay eggs either in flight or by perching on an overhanging vegetation or rock

* They can fly at speeds of up to 25 to 30 km per hour

* They are indicators of a healthy ecosystem. Adults keep insects such as mosquitoes under control by feeding on them

* Dragonflies are aerial predators — they catch insects such as mosquitoes, midges, butterflies, moths and bees when in flight

* The best time to watch them is during midday. Make sure you don’t wear bright-coloured clothes when you observe them from close range, for they have a sensitive eye

(Source: E-book Dragonflies Of India A Field Guide by K.A. Subramanian)