Black Saddlebag: Essential Facts and Tips for Enthusiasts

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The Black Saddlebag is a dragonfly species with distinct markings that set it apart from other dragonflies.

Its name comes from the dark, saddlebag-like blotches found on each hindwing, positioned close to the body. This characteristic makes it easy to identify among other skimmer species.

These fascinating insects can be found throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and even as far as Hawaii and the Caribbean Islands.

Black Saddlebag

They prefer habitats with fish-free, still or slow-moving water with abundant vegetation. These environments provide ideal breeding grounds for the Black Saddlebags.

One interesting behavior of Black Saddlebags is their tendency to stay in flight most of the time, rarely perching for long periods.

This constant movement not only makes them a captivating sight to observe but also showcases their impressive agility and skill in the air.

Physical Characteristics of the Black Saddlebag

The Black Saddlebag, scientifically known as Tramea lacerata, is a striking species of dragonfly that is easily recognizable due to its distinct wing patterns and body coloration.

Size and Body Structure

Adult Black Saddlebags typically have a body length ranging from 1.9 to 2.1 inches (48 to 53 mm).

They possess a slender and elongated abdomen, which is a common feature among dragonflies.

Wing Patterns

The most distinguishing feature of the Black Saddlebag is its wing pattern.

The hindwings of this dragonfly have a broad, black band near the body, which resembles a “saddlebag,” giving the species its common name.

The rest of the wings are mostly clear, with slight amber tinting at the bases.

Body Coloration

Black Saddlebag males and females differ slightly in their body coloration

Males: The abdomen is predominantly black with some blue-gray pruinescence, especially on the dorsal side. The thorax is also dark with a slight metallic sheen.

Females: Females have a similar black coloration but lack the blue-gray pruinescence seen in males. Instead, they might exhibit a more brownish hue on the abdomen.

Eyes

The eyes of the Black Saddlebag are large and multifaceted, typical of dragonflies.

They have a reddish-brown to dark brown coloration, which contrasts with their dark body.

Legs

Like other dragonflies, the Black Saddlebag has six spindly legs.

These legs are not primarily used for walking but are more adapted for perching or catching prey in flight.

Flight

The Black Saddlebag is a strong flier, capable of long migrations.

Its flight is characterized by steady wing beats, and it can hover in place or dart rapidly when pursuing prey.

Habitat and Distribution of the Black Saddlebag

The Black Saddlebag (Tramea lacerata) is a dragonfly species that can be found in various habitats across North America.

Its adaptability and strong flying capabilities allow it to thrive in a range of environments.

It prefers to be near lakes and ponds where it can find a lot of aquatic vegetation.

Geographical Range:

North America:

The Black Saddlebag is commonly found throughout the United States, from the East Coast to the West Coast.

However, it is absent from the upper midwest.

It also extends its range into parts of Canada and Mexico.

Beyond North America:

While predominantly a species of North America, there have been occasional sightings in parts of the Caribbean and Central America.

Preferred Habitats:

Black Saddlebags are frequently found around marshes, ponds, and lakes.

These freshwater habitats provide them with ample prey and suitable breeding grounds.

They are also commonly seen in open fields, meadows, and grasslands, especially near water sources.

While they prefer open spaces for hunting, the edges of woodlands and forests can also be frequented by this species, especially when seeking shelter or perching sites.

Breeding Sites:

Black Saddlebags lay their eggs in still or slow-moving freshwater sources.

Females can be seen skimming the water’s surface, depositing eggs as they go.

Migration:

During certain times of the year, especially as temperatures begin to drop, black saddlebags can be seen moving southward in large numbers.

Their strong flying abilities aid them in covering long distances.

Life Cycle and Behavior of the Black Saddlebag

The Black Saddlebag (Tramea lacerata), like other dragonflies, undergoes a fascinating life cycle that includes both aquatic and aerial phases. 

Life Cycle Stages

Eggs: After mating, female Black Saddlebags lay their eggs on the water’s surface, often in still or slow-moving freshwater habitats like ponds or marshes. 

The eggs are tiny and are typically deposited while the female skims the water’s surface.

Nymphs (Larvae): Once hatched, the dragonfly nymphs are aquatic and live underwater. 

They are voracious predators at this stage, feeding on small aquatic organisms. 

As they grow, they undergo several molts, shedding their exoskeleton to allow for growth.

Emergence: After several molts and when they are fully grown, the nymphs crawl out of the water onto a plant or other structure. 

Here, they undergo their final molt, emerging as adult dragonflies. 

This process can be quite rapid, with the dragonfly expanding its wings and hardening its body.

Adults: As adults, Black Saddlebags become aerial predators, feeding on smaller flying insects. Their large wings and agile flying abilities make them adept hunters.

Mating Behavior

Male Black Saddlebags are territorial and can often be seen patrolling areas near water, looking for potential mates.

Once a suitable mate is found, the male clasps the female behind her head, and the pair mate in flight.

Feeding Habits

As nymphs, they are ambush predators, lying in wait for small aquatic creatures to come near.

They use a specialized mouthpart called a “labium” to snatch their prey.

Adult Black Saddlebags feed on the wing, capturing smaller flying insects in mid-air. Their diet includes mosquitoes, flies, and other small insects.

Flight and Movement:

Black Saddlebags are strong fliers and can cover significant distances. They are known to be migratory, moving to warmer regions during the colder months.

Their flight is characterized by rapid wing beats interspersed with glides, making them agile and swift in the air.

Predators and Defense:

While Black Saddlebags are predators, they are also preyed upon by birds, larger dragonflies, and even spiders.

Their rapid flight and agility often help them evade these threats.

Their dark coloration can act as camouflage, especially when resting among vegetation.

File:Tramea lacerata close.jpg

Source: JerryFriedmanCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Diet and Feeding Habits of the Black Saddlebag

The Black Saddlebag (Tramea lacerata) is a proficient hunter, both in its nymphal and adult stages.

Its diet and feeding habits reflect its adaptability and role as a natural pest controller in various ecosystems.

Nymphal Diet

Aquatic Invertebrates: In their aquatic nymphal stage, Black Saddlebags primarily feed on a variety of small aquatic invertebrates. 

This includes tadpoles, small fish, zooplankton, and other aquatic insect larvae.

Ambush Predation: The nymphs are ambush predators, lying in wait among aquatic vegetation or on the substrate. 

They use a specialized extendable mouthpart called a “labium” to snatch unsuspecting prey that ventures too close.

Adult Diet

Aerial Insects: Once they emerge as adults, Black Saddlebags transition to a diet of flying insects. 

They are adept at catching their prey in mid-air, making them valuable for controlling pest populations.

Common Prey: Their primary diet includes mosquitoes, gnats, flies, small moths, and other flying insects. 

Their agile flight and keen eyesight allow them to pursue and capture even the most evasive of prey.

Feeding Behavior

  • Hawking: This is a common feeding strategy where the dragonfly patrols a particular area, capturing insects in flight and consuming them on the wing.
  • Perching: Some individuals may choose to perch on vegetation, waiting for suitable prey to come within range before launching a rapid attack.
  • Tandem Feeding: It’s not uncommon to see mated pairs of Black Saddlebags feeding together, especially shortly after mating.

Ecological Importance of the Black Saddlebag

The Black Saddlebag (Tramea lacerata), like many dragonflies, plays a pivotal role in the ecosystems it inhabits.

Its presence and activities have a cascading effect on the environment, influencing both the biotic and abiotic components.

Here’s a closer look at the ecological significance of this remarkable dragonfly:

Natural Pest Control:

Adult Black Saddlebags are voracious predators of mosquitoes.

By keeping mosquito populations in check, they help reduce the spread of mosquito-borne diseases and enhance the comfort of outdoor spaces for humans and other animals.

In their nymphal stage, Black Saddlebags feed on various aquatic pests, including larvae of other insects, ensuring a balance in freshwater ecosystems.

Indicator of Ecosystem Health:

Dragonflies, including the Black Saddlebag, are sensitive to water pollution.

Their presence or absence can serve as an indicator of the health of freshwater habitats.

A thriving population suggests clean water and a balanced ecosystem.

Areas with a diverse dragonfly population, including species like the Black Saddlebag, often indicate a rich and varied habitat, supporting a multitude of other species.

As Prey

While they are formidable predators, Black Saddlebags are also prey for various animals such as birds, larger dragonflies, and spiders.

Their presence supports the diets of these animals, ensuring a dynamic and functioning food web.

Moreover, as nymphs, they form a crucial link in aquatic food chains, converting the energy from lower trophic levels (like zooplankton) to forms accessible to higher trophic levels.

Conclusion

The Black Saddlebag dragonfly, with its distinctive wing patterns and agile flight, is more than just a visual delight. 

Its varied diet, intricate life cycle, and widespread distribution underscore its ecological importance. 

As both predator and prey, it plays a pivotal role in maintaining the balance of freshwater ecosystems. 

Beyond its role in the food chain, its presence serves as an indicator of environmental health. 

Truly, the Black Saddlebag is a testament to nature’s interconnected marvels.

Reader Emails

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

Letter 1 – Black Saddlebags

Saddle Bag Dragonfly
Location:  North Middle Tennessee
August 2, 2010 10:04 am
Good Morning Daniel,
This fellow was trapped between the screen and window this morning. (hole in screen) I did a double take when I saw it, the transparent part of the wings didn’t show. I ran for the camera to get a shot of the very unusual bug.

With a closer look I knew it was a dragonfly, never noticed one like this before but I have seen photos of it. It was so tired from trying to escape its entrapment it just sat on a piece of cardbord for photos.

After a bit of a rest he flew into a nearby tree. Thank you for everything and have a wonderful day.
Richard

Black Saddlebags

Hi Richard,
We were going through mail from earlier in the week to see if we had missed any interesting requests, and we found your email.  We believe this is a Black Saddlebags,
Tramea lacerata.

Letter 2 – Black Saddlebags

Subject: Dragonfly is help
Location: Denver, CO
September 10, 2016 10:39 am
This was on my raspberry bush in Dwnver this morning. Do you know what type of dragonfly it is?
Signature: Thank you,

Black Saddlebags
Black Saddlebags

We believe, based on this BugGuide image, that your Dragonfly is a Black Saddlebags, Tramea lacerata.  According to BugGuide:  “Large dark ‘saddlebags’ on hindwings distinctive. Could be confused with Carolina or Red Saddlebags in poor light. Flies constantly, often gliding, perches infrequently.” 

We suspect it is significant that your image was taken in the morning, before this Dragonfly warmed up and began flying.  You most likely captured the image after its nightly rest.

Letter 3 – Black Saddlebags with trauma

What kind of bug is this
Location:  Southwest Iowa
July 26, 2010 8:23 pm
I live in Southwest Iowa and found this ”bug” on my deck tonight. Just wondering if anyone can identify it…never seen anything like it my life. It has four long, clear wings (2 on each side) with a brown spot on the tip of each that can barely be seen on the pictures. I would appreciate any input on this bug. Thank you very much
Dana Fae

Black Saddlebags with missing abdomen

Dear Dana Fae,
Something, perhaps an insectivorous bird, has preyed upon this Black Saddlebags Dragonfly and eaten the tasty abdomen, leaving behind the mostly inedible wings, legs and head.  You can see photos of intact Black Saddlebags,
Tramea lacerata, on bugGuide.

Letter 4 – Carolina Saddlebags, we believe

Subject: Blue dasher 3 sets of wings?
Location: Dallas, TX
July 29, 2017 9:29 am
Hello! I have a very large pool that I converted to a natural pond, which invites all sorts of lovely critters in my north Texas yard. It began a longtime obsession with dragonflies, to the point that I am not satisfied until one lands on my finger daily, haha. I found one last night, sadly as it was dying, that had the most perplexing wings.

I’m convinced this is a blue dasher, as that’s the majority of what occupies my yard. Green darners and flame skimmers come around, too, and a plethora of damselflies, but this has to be an old dasher based on its color and size. I’ve seen several of them growing as they emerge from their exuvia, which was my first thought (it’s still growing its wings) but this guy was too large to be any newbie.

I am perplexed to no end by this third set of dark, almost butterfly wings that seemed to be goopy where it was attached to the body, and also not connected to the normal sets of wings above. I’m sorry the clear wings aren’t very visible, but have you seen anything like this before?

Mutation? Species I haven’t yet seen? Some evil child gluing wings to a dragonfly? Thank you in advance. I can’t find anything online.
Signature: Beth in Texas

Possibly Carolina Saddlebags

Dear Beth,
There is nothing deformed about this Dragonfly, and the dark markings on the second set of wings is consistent with the markings on the Saddlebags Dragonflies in the genus
Tramea.  We believe, based on this BugGuide image, that your individual is a Carolina Saddlebags.

Thank you so much! Its wings were so delicate that I couldn’t see they were connected to the darkest part, which is why I was so puzzled. This pleases me to no end to have spotted a new visitor at my pond!
Thank you again 🙂

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.

    View all posts
Tags: Black Saddlebag

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