Dragonflies and Damselflies – What’s the difference? (Adults)

A couple of posts ago, I went over the difference between dragonflies and damselflies in the nymph stage.  Today I’m going to cover the difference between dragonfly and damselfly adults.  They’re very easy to tell apart once you know what you’re looking for, so let’s drive right in!

This is a dragonfly:

Anax junius adult

Adult dragonfly (Anax junius, male)

A few thing to notice about the dragonfly:

1) The eyes are broadly rounded and lie mostly flat against the head
2) The thorax (the green part the wings are attached to in the picture above) ismore broad than the abdomen (the blue part in this dragonfly)
3) The forewings and hindwings are different shapes
4) Body is quite large (The dragonfly in the picture, a green darner, is about 3 inches long!), though there is a lot of variation in size

All dragonflies share these characteristics.  Also, if you saw this dragonfly sitting on a plant or on the ground, it’s wings would be held in the same position you see in the picture, spread out flat and to the sides of its body.

Now compare the dragonfly picture to this picture of a damselfly:

damselfly adult

Damselfly adult (unidentified sp.)

Look for these things in the damselfly:

1) The eyes are largely spherical and protrude off the sides of the head
2) The thorax (the segment where the wings are attached) is narrow, about the same width as the abdomen
3) The forewings and hindwings are very similar in size and shape
4) Usually fairly small (at least compared to the dragonflies)

If you saw a damselfly resting at a pond, it’s wing would look different from a dragonfly’s.  Rather than holding it’s wings flat and to the sides of it’s body, it holds its wings straight up, pressed together over the top of its thorax.  This is what you would see in the field if you saw one from the side:

damselfly adult

Damselfly adult, side view (Enallagma boreale)

Ultimately, if you’re at a pond or river, the easiest way to tell whether an odonate you’re looking at is a dragonfly or damselfly is to look at how it holds it’s wings while resting.  If they’re lying flat, parallel to the ground, you are looking at a dragonfly.  If the wings are pressed together, held over the bug’s back, you’ve got a damselfly.  So what happens if the odonate you’re looking at doesn’t ever stop flying?  Let’s think back to the difference between perchers and fliers from my last post.  Fliers are almost always dragonflies and damselflies are almost always perchers.  If it doesn’t stop to rest every few minutes, it’s probably a dragonfly.

Okay.  Now imagine you have two pinned odonate specimens, one dragonfly and one damselfly, rather than seeing them in the field.  The wings are spread apart on both.  Can you tell the two insects apart?  We know you should look at the shape and location of the eyes, the width of the thorax, whether the forewings look like the hind wings, and the size of the body.  See if you can tell which one is which in this picture:

dragon and damsel

A dragonfly and a damselfly - can you tell them apart?

The answers are listed below so you can’t cheat!  Scroll down to check your answers.  Hopefully you got them right!

If you have problems remembering the difference when you don’t have a list of their characteristics sitting right in front of you, here’s a good way to remember them.  Think of the names of these insects, dragonflies and damselflies.  What sorts of images do these names conjure in your mind?  I personally think of medieval stories about dragons holding damsels in distress hostage to use as bait for daring knights.  Think of dragonflies as you would the dragon in this image: robust, strong, powerful, and really big.  The damselfly is more like the damsel in the dragon and the damsel image.  They are smaller, softer, and weaker than the dragon.

One final note about dragonflies and damselflies as I finish this up.  The odonates have become very popular with non-scientists recently and dragonfly watching has become a sort of sport similar to bird watching.  With the publication of several excellent field guides which contain all of the species in a region or the country, it is easy for people who are not familiar with insects to identify the dragonflies and damselflies they see without specialized training or equipment.  All you need is a good field guide and a pair of binoculars!  If this is something that interests you, I have two field guides that I haul around with me when I’m out camping, bug collecting, on class field trips, etc, that I would like to recommend.  The first is Dragonflies Through Binoculars by Sidney Dunkle.  The book is about $30 retail (less on Amazon.com) and covers all of the dragonflies in the U.S.  The book contains excellent distribution maps and flight season information, color photos of every species, the common and scientific names for every species, and multiple pictures for species where the males and females (and sometimes the younger males) are different colors.  The descriptions for each species highlights the distinctive characteristics you should look for to tell them apart from other similar species.  It’s a really excellent book.  The downside: no damselflies!  I recently acquired a book that covers dragonflies AND damselflies in the western U.S., Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West by Dennis Paulson, so that I have a field guide for the damselflies too.  It has many of the same features as Dunkle’s book and costs about the same, but includes both dragonflies and damselflies.  The downside to this book: the book doesn’t cover the whole country, so you need another book if you’re going somewhere east of Kansas or Nebraska.  Still, it gets the job done in my area and I find it very useful.  Dragonfly watching is a fun activity and I hope you will give it a try!  There’s nothing quite like the feeling of checking another dragonfly, one you’ve never seen before, off your checklist.

Answer to the dragonfly vs. damselfly quiz above: A is the damselfly (one of the largest in the country!) and B is the dragonfly.


Text and images copyright © 2009 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com


36 thoughts on “Dragonflies and Damselflies – What’s the difference? (Adults)

  1. i love the green heart between the first dragonfly’s wings…:) i love your blog!!! I check it every other day or so…I am learning WAY more that I want to about insects and bugs….

  2. Thanks Krista! I’m so glad you’re reading it and actually enjoying it! I know you’re not all that fond of bugs, so it’s a huge compliment that you like it.

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  5. I live in Fairbanks, AK and yesterday I was out fishing and there were thousands of powder blue damselflys around. pretty. there were so many that they were fighting over the plants that were sticking up out of the water. A friend corrected me when I called them dragonflys (I had put a picture on Facebook) so I learned something- and your site confirmed it!

  6. – throughout the decades it seems that anglers in certain parts of the country favor the nickname “snake doctor” when casually identifying ~ d . flies ~ ( this term continues to tickle ) — ?an¥ stories of the origin? neophynma

    • Europeans didn’t have a very positive view of the dragonflies in their areas a couple hundred years ago and the name snake doctor comes from that. Dragonflies were thought to be in league with the devil, so they were called snake doctors because they were associated with the serpent, or Satan. There appear to have been some myths that dragonflies hung around with snakes too, but I have no idea where that idea came from. The name snake doctor came over to the US with the European settlers and is still in use. I have relatives in Missouri who tell me that people in their little town call them snake doctors, so I know at least some people I know are using it.

  7. Oh Dear, I think you may have started something off. Fascinating. I was out walking yesterday, on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, England, UK and there were swarms. Then some-one asked: damsels or dragons?? Hence Google, hence here – and fascinated I am……. thanks

    • I’m so happy I could introduce you to something new and enjoyable! I hope you will consider reporting your swarm so I can add it to my database of swarm reports for my research. The report form is located at thedragonflywoman.com/dsp/report. :)

  8. I fell in love with an exquisite pair of dragonfly earrings a number of years ago, and so began the occasional acquisition of dragonflies “captured” in other media: a pretty piece of silk, a sculpture made from found metal objects by a New Orleans artist after Katrina. A catalog arrived in today’s mail, depicting a beautiful necklace of “damselflies”, a term which seemed oddly lost, yet familiar, as if from a poem from childhood. And I realized that I didn’t know if there were two separate entities, with “dragonfly” the layman’s default – like Kleenex – or whether they were separate, or interchangeable? And there you were, with fascinating info on the web to clarify for me. Both remain beautiful and elegant to my eye! I loved the little green heart between the dragonfly’s wings as well; just incredible! I’ll be looking much more closely from now on!

    • Glad I could answer your question! If you lived in Europe, you’d probably use dragonfly for all odonates, but here in the US we feel the need to split them into groups. I find myself using the British method of lumping everything together into one group, just because it’s easier. However, there is a real taxonomic difference between the dragonflies (Anisoptera) and the damselflies (Zygoptera) which does justify their separation into two common names.

      Glad to hear you have a dragonfly collection going! So do I. :)

  9. I am a retired teacher and wished I had known about your website before now. I just discovered it when I was searching for an answer about the difference between a damsel fly and a dragon fly. I appreciate the amount of factual information and work you do. It’s an indication to me how much you enjoy what you do and most of all your willingness to share it.
    I, too, am a bit skiddish about insects but because of my love to teach children and not limit them to learning all they can, I am able to overcome it. It gives me greater appreciation as I learn more of the our wonderful world we live in and how each living thing has a divine purpose. Thank you.

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  11. Do you like the book “Dragonflies & Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast”? It’s one someone recommended to me and I guess the only book about the subject I have ever seen.

    • Yes, I do like it! I tend to like Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East a little better, but that’s just because it’s the companion to Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West and that was a book I used often before I moved to the southeast a few years ago. But, Dragonflies and Damselflies of Georgia is a wonderful book too, so I recommend it along with D&D of the East most of the time.

  12. This is fabulous! Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I had actually never heard of a damselfly until an entomologist friend shared a photo of one online. I had been teaching my kids all about the dragonflies swarming our yard the last few days, so when that photo popped up with the title “damselfly,” i decided I’d better make sure I knew what I was talking about! Ha. Luckily, ours are definitely dragonflies. Now, to do some digging to see if I can figure out what kind of dragonfly ours are! :)

  13. I love this blog having just discovered it. I love the study and observation of Dragon and Damselflies and i certainly appreciate all the information being published here. Thank you for your passion and love for these beautiful creatures.

  14. Love your blog! We were at a mountain lake over the weekend. I saw dragonflies and then hundreds of what I think must have been damselflies because of the way they held their wings. The thing that confuses me is that they were so tiny, about an inch long and beautiful, bright blue. Can they be so tiny? They were perching on tall grass etc. where it was quite wet.

    Thank you for your help and wonderful blog!

  15. thank you for such a clear and useful post – we will use today in the public park in north London where we have a gardening club every week. I shared it on our Facebook page too FroGG Community Garden Club.

  16. Thanks for the great article – I had always wondered about the difference between the two.

    I have a question though… You mention that when dragonflies are sitting, they keeps their wings out to the sides. Is there any situation in which a dragonfly would / can they fold their wings up like a damselfly?

    • They CAN fold their wings up like that, but generally don’t. It wouldn’t surprise me if you very occasionally came across a dragonfly with its wings back, but it’s not a typical or common behavior – if it happens at all, because I’m just saying it’s possible and not probable. I personally haven’t seen one do it.

  17. NICE JOB. 1) The eyes are largely spherical and protrude off the sides of the head. THAT REALLY INTERESTED ME.4) Usually fairly small (at least compared to the dragonflies) that also was very interesting.

    • Looking back over this post, it looks like I said that damselflies are weaker than the dragonflies, but there are males and females in both groups. Female dragonflies and damselflies tend to be just as strong as the males!

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