Dragonfly Emergence

A few weekends ago, I was leading a ladybug hunt at work and took everyone into the garden to see if we could find anything different.  The kids eventually wandered over to the garden pond, pulled in by whatever irresistible lure that pond holds for people under the age of 12, and peered in.  The boy quickly called me over to look at something and pointed to the leaf.  This is what he saw:

Carolina saddlebags emerging

Carolina saddlebags emerging

Dragonfly emergence!  As much time as I spend around water and as much time as I spend watching dragonflies, I’ve never had a camera with me when I’ve seen dragonflies emerging.  I was thrilled!  I snapped a few shots before we looked at other plants in the pond.  There were a half-dozen dragonflies dragging their soft, squishy bodies out of their last exoskeletons as nymphs and preparing to join the world above the water.  I finished the program, but as soon as the ladybug hunters left, I went right back to the pond to look for more dragonflies.  Over the course of the day, I spent about 2 hours watching the dragonflies emerging and snapping photos of a dozen dragonflies that transformed from nymph to adult.  It was magical!  I naturally couldn’t wait to share some photos with you all.

Transforming from a nymph to an adult as a dragonfly is not as complex as it the more familiar transformation from a larva to a butterfly.  Dragonflies undergo what is called incomplete, or hemimetabolous, metamorphosis, so they move from egg to nymph to adult with no pupal stage.  Even though most of the kids I work with will never see it, dragonfly nymphs actually look quite a bit like the adults.  Butterflies have to rearrange all their caterpillar tissues into butterfly tissues while dragonflies simply lose a mouthpart, gain a pair of wings, and fly away.  Still, there are all sorts of horrible things that can go wrong.  I saw one dragonfly get blown off its perch as it was pulling the last of its abdomen free from the exoskeleton, only to be blown into the water.  I tried to rescue her, but she eventually died.  Another dragonfly couldn’t free itself from its exoskeleton at all and remained stuck inside until it died.  But, 10 of the 12 dragonflies I observed emerged with no problems.  Here’s how it works.

First, the dragonfly nymph must crawl out of the water.  This appears to be a rather laborious process as the adult dragonfly is just about to burst out of an exoskeleton that is much too small and the nymph practically drags its body up and out of the water:

Eastern pondhawk nymph

Eastern pondhawk nymph

That particular dragonfly took a good 20 minutes to get 10 inches up the stem before wrapping her legs around it and starting to puff herself up.  Eventually, the dragonfly breaks the exoskeleton open along the thorax and begins to spill out of the hole.  The head is extracted first:

Stuck dragonfly

Stuck dragonfly

You know how I mentioned that dragonfly that got stuck in its exoskeleton?  This is as far as that one got.  It still looked like this when I left work 6 hours later.  Assuming all goes well, however, the dragonfly begins to pull its body out of the nymphal exoskeleton.  I saw two different methods of this.  This blue dasher female freed her legs, then used them to grasp the stem and pull the rest of her body out:

Blue dasher emerging

Blue dasher emerging

The female eastern pondhawk, however, started bending her body over backwards, using gravity to help pull her head and thorax down to extract her abdomen:

Eastern pondhawk emerging

Eastern pondhawk emerging

Both dragonflies eventually rested on the plant for a while, pumping hemolymph into their wings to extend them fully.  The blue dasher sat above her exoskeleton:

Blue dasher emerging

Blue dasher emerging

…while the eastern pondhawk rested below hers:

Eastern pondhawk emerging

Eastern pondhawk emerging

The pondhawk was too close to the water to extend her wings fully, however, so she eventually moved up the stem so that she could finish her wing development and stretch them all the way out:

Eastern pondhawk emerging

Eastern pondhawk emerging

I know I’ve mentioned it several times in the past, but insects shed all of their exoskeleton when they molt, which includes the exoskeleton-lined respiratory system.  Those little white strings hanging out of that shed exoskeleton is the shed respiratory system.  I never get tired of marveling at just how amazing it is that insects replace whole systems when they molt, both internally and externally!

eventually, both the blue dasher and the eastern pondhawk had dried their wings sufficiently to move them out to their sides, holding them in the manner characteristic of dragonflies:

Blue dasher emerging

Blue dasher emerging

At this point, the dragonflies began to harden, their bodies darkening in color until they approached their final color.  The blue dasher female was a dusky black:

Blue dasher ready to fly

Blue dasher ready to fly

The eastern pondhawk became an even more vivid green and her black markings became dark and vibrant:

Eastern pondhawk ready to fly

Eastern pondhawk ready to fly

The whole process took about three hours for each species.  Eventually, the 10 successfully molted new adults all flew off, ready to spend their short lives on land and leaving their old lives behind:

Carolina saddlebag exoskeleton

Carolina saddlebag exoskeleton

What an amazing process!  If I had to spend a Saturday at work (and a very long Saturday at work at that), these sorts of things make it completely worth it.  I was thrilled I got to see all these dragonflies emerging.  Every time I go into the garden now, I am drawn immediately to the pond.  Will there be more dragonflies emerging?  So far I haven’t seen another, but it’s only a matter of time.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth
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40 thoughts on “Dragonfly Emergence

  1. Oh, DW – Excellent, Excellent, Excellent!! Thanks for sitting out there watching dragonflies emerge.

  2. This is SO cool. Thank you for taking the time to watch all this and post about it! I’ve seen a damselfly hanging out beside its exoskeleton, but it was from a distance so I didn’t get a great look. Now I’m going to have to search for newly emerging dragonflies!

  3. Wow. Those are amazing shots and your commentary really helped me to follow what was going on. After a series of 90 degree days last week, we seem to have lots of dragonflies, but I will keep my eyes peeled for the exoskeletons and maybe I will have the good fortune to see the process unfold.

    • Most of the people where my mom lives in rural Missouri call them snake doctors, so I’ve definitely heard the term. It goes back to the old world notions that dragonflies are in league with the devil. Snakes = the devil in a lot of imagery, hence snake doctors. Honestly, I have no idea where the image came from. I can only imagine that there was a body of water that had a lot of snakes in or around it and the dragonflies were thought to be associated with them somehow.

      Glad you liked the photos!

  4. Thank you very much. You’re my connection with all of this. I found some books of dragonflies but haven’t purchased them yet(according to my wife I’m always only ever $10.00 away from a divorce. :), :) Ha, Ha).

    Seriously, I am pursuing a lot of nature stuff and yours is right up there with the best. I liked that as soon as the last ladybug hunter left you went right back to where the action was. Your pictures are great, you enthusiasm is great, and your knowledge is great. Thanks.

    • I do love my dragonflies, so I spend a lot of time watching them. I think it’s the only way you’re ever really going to become familiar with all of the amazing things they do! Glad my enthusiasm for them comes through in my writing.

      Sorry to hear about the book situation though. I’m glad my husband doesn’t impose any restrictions on book purchases! Our marriage wouldn’t have made it this far if he had. :)

  5. After reading this, I’ll be looking a lot closer whenever I’m near a pond. I have to see this for myself. Thank you.

  6. Truly phenomenal piece! Thanks for taking the pictures and all the time to document and explain…so great to have it all together here in this one blog!

  7. Thank you so much for taking the time to create the images and craft the text to so clearly document and explain Dragonfly metamorphosis. I will be sharing this!

  8. I love your posts. This one was wonderful. I have photographed a truly unusual looking dragon fly and would love to send you a photo. It has an interesting look to it that I have not seen before. IT has three long strings coming out of the rear of the bug.

    • So glad that you enjoyed it! And I would be happy to take a look at your photo. Send it to me at thedragonflywoman on gmail! If it has 3 long tails, I suspect it is not a dragonfly and might be something else, but send it my way and I’ll see if I can ID it for you.

  9. Good job! Excellent catch here with all of your most excellent photos:-) I was once out doing a dragonfly walk during a mass emergence. They were everywhere! I was able to see a few emerge, and collect some of the exuviae for examination later. I still have memories of all of those glistening still not quite dry wings perched and in flight.

  10. Wow! This is fabulous. I have two questions. I read the immature dragonflies are sometimes called naiads. What’s the determining factor for that? Also, do mature dragonflies fold their wings in, like butterflies? I see that in drawings, but I haven’t seen a dragonfly do that. Congratulations on these excellent pix!

    • Naiad is a term that is typically used to describe the nymphal stage of aquatic insects, those that undergo incomplete (hemimetabolous) metamorphosis. It’s an old term, one that people don’t use as much anymore, but some researchers still use it when they talk about groups like the dragonflies, mayflies, stoneflies, and aquatic bugs. Nymph is much more commonly used now, though there is some argument among entomologists about whether the immatures of the hemimetabolous insects should be called nymphs or larvae.

      When you say “fold their wings in, like butterflies,” I’m assuming you mean how their hold their wings when at rest. Dragonflies rest with their wings open, spread on either side of their bodies. Damselflies, however, fold their wings over their backs like butterflies. Dragonflies and damselflies are in the same group of insects, the Odonata, but the way they hold their wings will tell you whether the insect belongs to the damselflies (the Zygoptera) or the dragonflies (the Anisoptera). So, dragonflies typically only fold their wings over their backs when they first emerge, then hold their wings out to the side at rest the remainder of their lives.

      Hope this answers your questions!

  11. I just found your blog. What an impressive series of photos! I had no idea that they shed so much of the lining of the trachea, but of course, that makes sense. Thanks for an informative photojournal. I’m going to follow your next exploits in dragonfly world. Ours have just appeared recently in MN, so it’s time to get down to the pond and take a look.

  12. Pingback: Odonate Emergence | The Pathless Wood

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