Are Damselflies Dragonflies? Unraveling the Mysteries of these Intriguing Insects

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Damselflies and dragonflies both belong to the order Odonata, a group of predatory insects commonly found near freshwater habitats.

Although they share many similarities, there are key differences between the two, allowing for easy identification and distinction.

Damselflies, belonging to the suborder Zygoptera, are characterized by their slender bodies, large eyes, and six thin legs. These aquatic insects possess a unique tripod configuration of gills, appearing leaflike in appearance.

In contrast, dragonflies, part of the suborder Anisoptera, are known for their stronger, more robust bodies and their impressive flying capabilities, reaching speeds of up to 35 miles an hour.

Unlike damselflies, dragonflies have broader wings and can effortlessly hover and fly backward.

While both damselflies and dragonflies play crucial roles in their ecosystems as predators, their diverse attributes make them a fascinating topic of study.

By understanding their distinctions, one can appreciate the beauty and complexity of these captivating insects. 

Damselflies and Dragonflies: An Overview

Odonata Order

Damselflies and dragonflies belong to the insect order Odonata, which consists of two suborders: Zygoptera (damselflies) and Anisoptera (dragonflies).

These insects are characterized by their elongated bodies, large eyes, and two pairs of wings. They are also known for their predatory nature, feeding on smaller insects and larvae.

Similarities and Differences

Physical Characteristics

  • Damselflies:
    • Very slender abdomens
    • Delicate body structure
    • Wings held together when at rest
    • Eyes usually do not touch
  • Dragonflies:
    • Robust and thicker abdomens
    • Sturdier body structure
    • Wings held perpendicular to the body when at rest
    • Eyes may be touching or nearly touching

Leg and Wing Structure

Both damselflies and dragonflies have:

  • 6 thin legs
  • Large compound eyes
  • Two pairs of wings
  • Membranous, elaborately veined wings

Nymph Stage

In the nymph stage, both dragonflies and damselflies are aquatic. However, there are some differences in their features:

  • Damselfly nymphs have 3 leaf-like or paddle-like gills at the rear part of their body.
  • Dragonfly nymphs have gills located inside their rectum.
FeatureDamselfliesDragonflies
AbdomenSlenderRobust
Wings at restHeld togetherHeld perpendicular
Body StructureDelicateSturdier
EyesUsually do not touchMay be touching or nearly touching
Nymph GillsLeaf-like, at the rear part of the bodyInside rectum
A Dragonfly, Source: Michael Palmer, via Wikimedia Commons

Physical Characteristics

Eyes and Vision

  • Damselflies:
    • Have large compound eyes
    • Eyes usually do not touch
  • Dragonflies:
    • Have sophisticated eyes
    • Over twenty to thirty thousand per head

Wings and Flight

  • Damselflies:
    • Have 2 pairs of wings
    • Wings are typically held together over the body
  • Dragonflies:
    • Have 2 pairs of wings
    • Wings spread out when at rest

Size and Appearance

  • Damselflies:
    • Smaller than dragonflies
    • Slender, elongated abdomens
    • Delicate bodies in various colors
  • Dragonflies:
    • Larger than damselflies
    • Robust bodies
FeatureDamselfliesDragonflies
SizeSmallerLarger
Body ShapeSlender, elongated abdomensRobust
Eye PositionLarge compound eyes, usually do not touchSophisticated eyes, 20,000-30,000 per head
Wings2 pairs, held together over the body2 pairs, spread out when at rest
ColorsDelicate bodies in various colorsN/A

Habitats and Life Cycle

Ecosystems and Habitats

Damselflies, like dragonflies, are predominantly found in freshwater environments such as ponds, streams, lakes, and rivers. They prefer:

  • Shallow, slow-flowing water
  • Vegetation near water bodies
  • Sunny and warm conditions

Some examples of damselfly habitats include marshy ponds, forest streams, and wet meadows.

Damselfly

Life Cycle Stages

The life cycle of damselflies consists of three main stages:

  1. Eggs: Females lay eggs on or near water, often on aquatic plants.
  2. Nymphs (larvae): The eggs hatch into nymphs that live underwater and breathe through their caudal gills.
  3. Adults: After multiple molts, the nymphs emerge from the water and transform into winged, flying insects.

Comparison Table:

FeatureDamselfly NymphsDragonfly Nymphs
HabitatFreshwater habitatsFreshwater habitats
Breathing ApparatusCaudal gillsRectal gills
Body ShapeSlenderStocky
  • Conservation: Damselflies, like dragonflies, play a crucial role in maintaining balanced ecosystems in and around freshwater habitats.

As predators, they help control insect populations, and as prey, they provide food for fish, birds, and other animals. Their presence also serves as an indicator of healthy and clean water bodies.

Feeding and Hunting Habits

Diet and Prey

Damselflies and dragonflies are both predatory insects that mainly feed on a variety of small aquatic and flying creatures. Their primary prey includes:

  • Mosquitoes
  • Other types of flying insects
  • Aquatic insects (in the nymph stage)

In particular, damselflies and dragonflies are known for their ability to consume large quantities of mosquitoes, making them an essential component in controlling mosquito populations.

Hunting Techniques

Both damselflies and dragonflies have developed unique hunting techniques to capture their prey. Here are the hunting strategies used by these two predatory insects:

Damselflies

  • Damselfly nymphs are lie-in-wait predators. They rest quietly on the substrate, and when a potential meal swims or walks near, they extend their jaws to catch the prey.
  • Adult damselflies primarily use their hind wings for hunting, which allows them to hover and change direction quickly, capturing flying insects with their legs.

Dragonflies

  • Dragonfly nymphs are ambush predators, hiding in the aquatic vegetation and launching themselves at the prey using jet propulsion.
  • Adult dragonflies have a more aggressive flying style, as they pursue and intercept their prey in mid-air, using their powerful wings for speed and maneuverability.
 DamselfliesDragonflies
NymphsLie-in-wait predatorsAmbush predators
AdultsUse hind wings for huntingAggressive flying style

Observation and Fun Facts

Observe and Identify

When observing damselflies and dragonflies, pay attention to their resting and flight characteristics. Damselflies usually rest with their wings folded together over their body, while dragonflies rest with their wings spread out.

Here’s a comparison table to help:

FeatureDamselflyDragonfly
Wings at RestFolded over bodySpread out

One common species to observe is the Common Blue Damselfly found near aquatic environments.

Interesting Trivia

Damselflies and dragonflies have some similarities and differences:

  • Both belong to the Odonata order
  • Damselflies belong to the suborder Zygoptera

Some interesting facts about these amazing insects include:

  • Their activity increases during warm weather
  • Their flight resembles a helicopter’s movement
  • Both have an appendage called the inferior appendage at the end of their abdomen

Their labium is a unique feature found in their mouthparts, designed to catch prey.

Damselflies and dragonflies are beneficial to the ecosystem, as they help control mosquito populations.

American Rubyspot Female

Summary

Damselflies and dragonflies, Both insects belong to the Odonata order and are integral to freshwater ecosystems due to their predatory nature. Damselflies have slender bodies and a delicate appearance.

Dragonflies have sturdier and are known for their impressive flying abilities.
They differ in terms of wing positioning, nymph gill placement, eye structure, and many more.

In summary, observe and appreciate these intriguing insects, and remember to always consult reliable resources like science dictionaries for accurate information.

Footnotes

  1. Missouri Department of Conservation

  2. U.S. National Park Service

  3. Missouri Department of Conservation

  4. Missouri Department of Conservation

  5. University of Maryland Extension

  6. Missouri Department of Conservation

  7. University of Maryland Extension

  8. Missouri Department of Conservation

  9. U.S. National Park Service

  10. University of Maryland Extension

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about damselfly’s. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – American Rubyspot Damselfly

American Rubyspot (Hetaerina – Part 1)
Mon, Nov 17, 2008 at 6:10 PM
Hi Bugman:
The American Rubyspot (Hetaerina americana) is not only one of the most beautiful damselflies in North America, but it is also one of the most widespread, having been recorded from all of the lower 48 states except Washington and Idaho, as well as northern Mexico and southeastern Canada.  

The Rubyspots belong to the family Calopterygidae (broad-winged damselflies; 2 genera and 8 species in North America), which also includes the jewel wings. All Calopterygidae inhabit river and stream habitats.  

I couldn’t find any Rubyspots in the WTB archive, so I thought you might be interested. The accompanying photos of a male and a female were taken last April while on a canoe trip down the Rio Grande in Big Bend NP.  

They were just one of the many awesome visual treats in this truly incredible piece of your country. Cheers.
Karl

American Rubyspot Male
American Rubyspot Male

Hi Karl,
Thanks for your wonderful letter with the description and photos.

American Rubyspot Female
American Rubyspot Female

Letter 2 – Arctic Skipper and Damselfly

Damselfly and a… Skipper?
Location: Parksville, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
November 27, 2011 4:05 am
Hi Bugman! Just wanted to let you know how much I love your site. I was reading your NRAs and was thoroughly amused by how little patience people have. Why, I didn’t get a response to my inquiry 4 years ago, and I’ve never ranted about it!

Unfortunately, I’ve lost the pictures, but they were small, grey larvae with casings that were stuck to the wall. The casings were made of… lint and dust, if you can believe that. Could they have been resourceful bagworm larvae that found novel building materials?

Arctic Skipper

The pictures I’m posting are ones that I took in the spring/summer of 2009, on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, in Parksville, B.C.

The first is a damselfly (a blue?) I found myself casually devouring a sand flea. It was quite confident and only departed one perch before deciding I could watch it finish its meal.

The next two are of a Lepidopteran, which I’d really like an identification of. From its appearance and its flight pattern, I thought that it might be a skipper.

The pictures really are as close as you might think; it let me get almost up to its face, and even graced me a few lovely poses before darting off. The photos are just a tiny bit blurry; my camera’s not good with closeups.

If you’d like, I have more pictures to send!
Signature: Geoff

Arctic Skipper

Hi Geoff,
We have so many things to address in your letter.  First, we are happy to hear you are not holding a grudge regarding an unanswered email from four years ago, and even though there is no photo, we believe you are describing Case Bearing Moth Larvae, a common insect found in homes. 

We are very excited about your photos, as we believe they are the first submissions we have ever posted of an Arctic Skipper, Carterocephalus Palaemon, which we identified in Jeffrey Glassberg’s excellent book Butterflies Through Binoculars The West where it is noted they are: 

“marked rather like a miniature fritillary.”  BugGuide lists the range as:  “Central Alaska south to central California, south in the Rocky Mountains to northwest Wyoming, east across the Great Lakes states to New York and New England.

Eurasia” and the habitat as:  “Glades and openings in heavily forested woods, moist meadows, and streamsides.”  We cannot determine the species identity of your Damselfly, but it makes a nice addition to our Food Chain tag.

Damselfly eats Sand Flea

Hi Bugman!
Thanks for your quick reply. It pleases me greatly that I was able to provide something new to your site.


I’m attaching 3 more pictures: the first is a full profile shot of the damselfly (hopefully, it might help with the identification); the second one is a close-up of a cluster of spiderlings, probably of Argiope aurantia? The final one is of a jumping spider.

Not technically bugs (or even insects!), but I thought I might send it in. All pictures were taken in the same place as the skipper, along a rocky beach.


By the way, regarding the proposed case bearing moths, it was in Hong Kong that they were found (my friend took those original photos).
Geoff

Geoff,
please just one species per submission.  Also, could you use the standard form?
ask-whats-that-bug/
I wreak havoc with our system to continue a dialog through email if that dialog requires a new posting.  We like to keep each post as a unique species.
Thanks
Daniel
P.S. Case-bearing moth larvae are found worldwide

Letter 3 – Damselflies from Costa Rica

Subject:  Dragonfly
The geographic location of the bug:  Guapiles, Costa Rica
Date: 07/29/2018
Time: 01:44 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Hi,
Please help me to identify these 2 dragonflies.
How you want your letter signed:  Johannes

Damselfly

Dear Johannes,
These are not Dragonflies, but they are Damselflies from the suborder Zygoptera, and Dragonflies are in a different suborder but within the same order Odonata. 

The Damselfly with the red markings looks like a Hetaerina sp. pictured on Costa Rican Dragonflies and Damselflies. and it looks like an Occisa Rubyspot from Belize we have in our archives. We are uncertain about your other individual.

Damselfly
Damselfly

Letter 4 – Damselflies from India

Subject: Damselfly
Location: Mumbai
December 28, 2013 11:06 am
Hey, there once again!
we get to see a lot of damselflies and i was able to identify golden dartlets and eastern forktails however this fellow remains unidentified.
Probably still immature
Signature: Sid

Damselfly
Damselfly

Subject: damselflies
Location: Navi mumbai
December 28, 2013 11:10 am
Its dragonfly and damselfly season. i thought it would be cool to post photos of some commonly found damsels.
Golden dartlets and eastern forktails are the most common ones here
Signature: Sid

Golden Dartlet
Golden Dartlet

Hi Sid,
Thanks for sending your lovely Damselfly images.  We have combined your two emails into one posting since they can both be categorized as Damselflies.  They are a great addition to our site. 

We do have a request.  One submission was listed as Mumbai and the other as Navi Mumbai.  Can you please clarify the difference in the locations if any?

Eastern Forktail
Eastern Forktail

Letter 5 – Damselflies Mating

Ebony Jewelwing Love
One for the dragonfly page or the “Love Bug” page. I believe the one with the white spot on the wings is the female>
Nadjia

Hi Nadjia,
Since you have sent us over a dozen images, we are trying to choose the most interesting ones or the images representing species lacking on our site.

We love this Damselfly image of Mating Ebony Jewelwings. You are correct, the female is in the rear, her head secured by the male’s anal claspers.

Letter 6 – Damselfly

Mini Blue DragonFly
Getting ready to ask what this tiny blue dragonfly was. DamselFly? Every time I got too close to get a more detailed pic, she would fly – hoovering for a second then return landing as if to ‘pose” for me.
Kori

Hi Kori,
This is a Damselfly. Damselflies usually rest with wings folded and dragonflies rest with wings opened.

Letter 7 – Bluet Damselfly Feasting

dining damselfly
In the second photo, a damselfly dines on a lygus bug while a tiny scuttle fly (at the left) competes for the meal. By the way, I took these photos with the 6x lens of a linen tester mounted in front of a camera not designed for close-up photography.
Ronald

Hi Ronald,
Your Damselfly food chain image is great. Sorry, we cannot identify the species (possibly a Violet Dancer, Argia vivida). We have real problems identifying dragonflies and damselflies. Perhaps someone will write in and identify it.

Update: Sat, Feb 21, 2009 at 2:48 AM
Good morning,
The shape of the black marking and overall look makes it a species of the Enallagma (Bluets)genus.
Renaud, Switzerland

Letter 8 – Damselflies: A pair of Bluets

damselflies
I discovered your wonderful website today and would like your help confirming or correcting my ID of these two damselflies. I photographed them on April 4, 2005, in the desert about 1/4 mile east of Topock Marsh, Mohave County, Arizona.

I initially identified them as male and female Vivid Dancers – Argia vivida.
Thank you,
Phil Bleicher

Hi Phil,
Though your photos are very nice, we are not prepared to give more than a possible agreement to your identification. Many species of insects, including Damselflies, need close specimen examination to make a positive identification.

This often involves the dissection of sexual organs or exact wing veinage assessment. The Vivid Dancer, Argia vivida, is common in the West.

Correction: Sat, Feb 21, 2009 at 3:28 AM
Good morning,
If I may, this is a species of the genus Enallagma (Bluet).
I hope this helps,
Renaud, Switzerland

Authors

  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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Tags: Damselfly

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Good morning,

    If I may, this is a species of the genus Enallagma (Bluet).

    I hope this helps,
    Renaud, Switzerland

    Reply
  • Good morning,

    The shape of the black marking and overall looj makes it a species of the Enallagma (Bluets)genus.

    Renaud, Switzerland

    Reply
  • Hey there,

    Navi Mumbai is in the outskirts of the old city. and hence the abundance of green patches around and lots of insects. you could tag all those photos as taken at navi mumbai

    Reply
  • Hey there,

    Navi Mumbai is in the outskirts of the old city. and hence the abundance of green patches around and lots of insects. you could tag all those photos as taken at navi mumbai

    Reply

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