Wild ride Children

Dragons and damsels

Take yourself 320 million years back in time — a time even before the dinosaurs were in existence. Imagine yourself seated by a pond, all around being calm and serene. But, this peaceful scene gets shattered when suddenly, the glass-like water’s surface begins to ripple. A spooky, dark form rises from within the pool. The aquatic monster climbs onto a rock. A sharp cracking sound rents the air as its yellowish skin rips open, starting from the head down to its abdomen. Your eyes nearly fall out of their sockets when out emerges a dragonfly. But this is no ordinary dragonfly — true to its name, it is dragon-like, its wings stretching 25 inches across. It is as big as a crow!

This is no fairy tale. It is true that dragonflies were among the first flying insects to appear on our planet and they were enormous. But through the ages they evolved and became smaller, probably to adapt to a low, unhindered flight through shrubbery where their large wings would come in the way.

Both dragonflies and their cousins, the damselflies, belong to the order of insects known as Odonata. ‘Odonos’ in Greek means ‘toothed one’. The insects have serrated teeth, an adaptation to their carnivorous diet.

The adults prey upon other insects, using their six legs to form a kind of basket to scoop up any insect in the air. It is difficult to imagine how these dainty-looking insects, with their gossamer wings and beautiful colours of red, yellow, blue or metallic green, can be so vicious. Indeed, they appear to be wolves in sheep’s clothing! From up close however, their heads appear like those of monsters. They have enormous mouths — ‘the better to eat their prey with’ — surrounded by bristles to prevent their victims from escaping. The large mouth with bristles may remind you of an unshaven criminal.

While dragonflies have large heads and fairly thick bodies, the damselflies appear frail, having extremely fine needle-like bodies. No wonder they are known as ‘Darner’s Needles’. It is difficult to imagine how the damselfly’s fine body, a mere pencil line, can hold its internal organs such as the stomach, intestines and so on. Dragonflies rest with their wings outstretched while damselflies rest with their wings folded, like butterflies.

Dissimilar

Dragonflies are the ace fliers in the insect world, being able to fly in any direction at 60 miles per hour — forwards, backwards, upwards, sideways, and they can change direction within the bat of an eyelid and can even hover. This is why they are popularly known as helicopters. To help them perform their fantastic aeronautic stunts, they have compound eyes that cover almost their entire head. The damselflies in contrast, are weak fliers.

Depending on their habits, dragonflies are divided into two groups: darters and hawkers. The darters, the smaller-sized among them, prefer to spend their time resting on plants from where they sally forth to hunt prey. The hawkers — the larger and more robust dragonflies — like to hunt all the time and rarely sit and relax. Their petite cousins, the damselflies are all darters.

Both these glamorous looking insects are found near fresh water bodies where they lay their eggs. But they will only do so if the water is unpolluted. This makes them good indicators of clean waters.

The male dragonflies are territorial. They police their territories and may even battle with other males who trespass, ending up with torn wings and mutilated legs, like wounded soldiers.

The delicate damselflies have elaborate courtship displays. The male waits for a female to fly past. He signals his interest to her by raising his body and spreading his wings. If she finds him acceptable, she alights near him. The male then performs an aerial fluttering dance, going backwards and forwards, facing her all the time. At the end of the dance he mates her. The dragonflies, however, do not seem to have the patience for courtship displays. They believe in direct action.

The larvae that hatch out of the eggs stay in the water for a whole year, feeding on aquatic insects, tadpoles and mosquito larvae. When, finally, the nymphs mature, they step out of the water and climb onto a perch where they wait for their skin to tear open, and voila! A winged adult is born.

We should be thankful to these insects that have been thriving on our planet for eons, not only for delighting us with their aesthetic beauty but also for serving as pest controllers, eating up pest insects like mosquitoes and flies!


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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 10:03:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/dragons-and-damsels/article29839254.ece

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