Damselfly vs Dragonfly: Unveiling the Key Differences

Damselflies and dragonflies are fascinating insects that capture the attention of both amateurs and professionals alike due to their size, color, and unique behaviors. Belonging to the order Odonata, these creatures are not only visually stunning but also essential predators in their respective ecosystems.

Though similar in appearance, damselflies and dragonflies have distinct characteristics that set them apart. Damselflies, for instance, are smaller in size (1-2 inches) and have a more delicate structure compared to dragonflies. At rest, damselflies hold their wings together above their body, while dragonflies typically spread their wings out horizontally. Both insects are carnivorous, feeding on mosquitoes, midges, and other small insects.

As aquatic insects, both damselflies and dragonflies spend most of their early life stages in water. They undergo a simple life cycle consisting of egg, nymph, and adult stages, with eggs laid on or near water and nymphs called naiads living underwater. Dragonfly nymphs can be differentiated from damselfly nymphs by the presence of gills located inside their rectum, whereas damselfly nymphs have their gills extending from their hind end like three leaf-like tails.

Damselfly Vs Dragonfly: Basic Differences

Damselflies and dragonflies are both aquatic insects. Let’s explore their basic differences in terms of appearance, behavior, and habitat.

  • Appearance:

    • Damselflies are generally smaller, with delicate and slender bodies. They hold their wings together above their body when at rest1.
    • Dragonflies have more robust bodies and hold their wings perpendicular to their body when at rest1.
  • Coloration:

    • Damselflies come in various colors, like the Blue-fronted Dancer Damselfly, which can range from blue to gray-black.
    • Dragonflies are also colorful, often with bold and striking patterns2.
Damselfly Dragonfly
Size Smaller, slender Larger, robust
Wings Held together above the body Held perpendicular to the body
Colors Various colors Bold and striking patterns
  • Behavior:

    • Damselflies prey on mosquitoes, midges, and other flies1.
    • Dragonflies capture prey on the wing, making them excellent hunters3.
  • Habitat:

    • Damselfly females lay eggs on aquatic vegetation or in the water1.
    • Both Dragonflies and damselflies inhabit water bodies, such as ponds, rivers, and lakes4.

Pros and cons of damselflies and dragonflies in the ecosystem:

  • Pros:

    • They help control mosquito and other pest populations.
    • They serve as indicators of water quality in their habitat.
  • Cons:

    • They can become a nuisance in high numbers.
    • Sensitive to habitat disturbances, which can affect their survival.

We hope this brief overview of the basic differences between damselflies and dragonflies has been helpful.

Classification and Taxonomy

The order Odonata consists of two main suborders: the Zygoptera (damselflies) and the Anisoptera (dragonflies). These insects have captured the attention of both amateurs and professionals due to their vibrant colors and interesting behaviors. The order Odonata is part of a larger group called Epiprocta (source).

Taxonomists divide the Odonata order into these suborders based on various morphological and behavioral characteristics. Damselflies belong to the Zygoptera suborder, while dragonflies are classified under the Anisoptera suborder.

Here are some distinguishing features of damselflies and dragonflies in bullet points:

Damselflies (Zygoptera):

  • Slender body
  • Wings held above body when at rest
  • Weaker and slower flight pattern

Dragonflies (Anisoptera):

  • Robust body
  • Wings held open horizontally when at rest
  • Stronger and faster flight pattern

In the following comparison table, you can see some differences between damselflies and dragonflies:

Feature Damselfly (Zygoptera) Dragonfly (Anisoptera)
Body shape Slender Robust
Wing position Above body when at rest Open horizontally when at rest
Flight Weaker, slower Stronger, faster
Eyes Large, but separated Large, nearly touching or connected

Each suborder of the Odonata order has its own advantages and disadvantages in terms of ecological adaptations and survival strategies. For example, damselflies are effective at hunting smaller insects, while dragonflies can target larger prey. However, damselflies may be more susceptible to predators due to their slower flight speed, while dragonflies can escape more easily thanks to their faster and more agile flight (source).

Flight and Predatory Behavior

Dragonflies and damselflies exhibit distinct differences in their flight and predatory behavior. Here’s a brief comparison of their flight characteristics and hunting strategies:

Flight:

  • Dragonflies: more agile with larger hind wings
  • Damselflies: more delicate and fluttery due to equal-sized wings

Dragonflies tend to be faster in flight, reaching speeds of up to 30 mph, while damselflies typically fly at slower speeds.

Predatory Behavior:

  • Dragonflies: catch prey mid-flight, impressive hunters
  • Damselflies: ambush predators, striking from a perch

Both dragonflies and damselflies are important predators of mosquitoes and other biting insects, benefiting humans by reducing their population.

Flight Hind Wings Predatory Behavior
Dragonflies Agile, faster Larger Catch prey mid-flight
Damselflies Delicate, slower Equal-sized Ambush predators

Some examples of their predatory behavior include:

  • Dragonflies: catching mosquitoes by extending their legs like a basket to trap prey
  • Damselflies: perching on plants near water to snatch insects that come close

In summary:

  • Dragonflies and damselflies are both valuable flying insect predators.
  • They differ in flight patterns and speed due to wing size.
  • Their hunting strategies are unique, with dragonflies as aerial hunters and damselflies as ambush predators.

Physical Characteristics

Damselflies

  • Damselflies have a slender body, making them appear delicate.
  • Their eyes are usually separated and located on each side of the head.
  • When at rest, their wings are usually held together above the body.
  • Damselflies have narrow, membranous wings with a similar shape for both pairs.
  • Larvae have a unique, leaf-like shape to their gills.

Dragonflies

  • Dragonflies have a more robust, chunky body compared to damselflies.
  • Their large eyes typically meet at the top of the head, giving them a distinctive appearance.
  • When at rest, dragonflies hold their wings open, perpendicular to the body.
  • They have broad, transparent wings with the front pair being slightly narrower than the hind pair.
  • Larvae possess rounded, internal gills rather than the external, leaf-like gills of damselflies.

Both damselflies and dragonflies undergo metamorphosis in three stages: egg, larva, and adult. However, their specific physical characteristics differ, as shown in the comparison table below:

Feature Damselfly Dragonfly
Body shape Slender, delicate Robust, chunky
Eye position Separated, on each side of the head Large, meeting at the top of the head
Wings at rest Held together above the body Open, perpendicular to the body
Wing shape Narrow, membranous Broad, transparent
Larva gill structure External, leaf-like Internal, rounded

Life Cycle and Natural Behavior

Both damselflies and dragonflies belong to the order Odonata. They play vital roles in ecosystems near lakes, streams, and rivers. Their life cycles consist of three stages: egg, nymph, and adult.

Eggs: Female damselflies and dragonflies lay eggs on or near water. These eggs take about three to five weeks to hatch into nymphs, or naiads1.

Nymphs: Nymphs are aquatic creatures. Damselfly nymphs are slender with six thin legs, large eyes, and leaf-like gills at the tip of their abdomens5. In contrast, dragonfly nymphs have more robust bodies and their gills are hidden within the abdomen2.

Adults: Both damselflies and dragonflies have two pairs of membranous wings with elaborate veins. Damselfly wings are about the same size and shape, while dragonfly wings are unequal4. Adults can be observed flying near water sources during the summer months.

Here is a comparison table for their main features:

Feature Damselfly Dragonfly
Wings Same size & shape Unequal
Eyes Large, not touching Large, touching
Resting position Wings held together over body Wings held out to the sides
Body Slender and delicate Robust
Nymphs Leaf-like gills at abdomen tips Hidden gills in abdomen

The resting position of their wings is another easy way to differentiate damselflies and dragonflies. Damselflies hold their wings together above their bodies, while dragonflies hold their wings out to the sides3.

Some interesting behaviors of Odonata species include:

  • Hovering in midair for brief periods
  • Capturing prey on the wing
  • Mating in midair, forming a heart-shaped position

By understanding their life cycle and natural behavior, it’s easier to observe and appreciate these fascinating creatures in their natural habitats.

Similarities Between Dragonflies and Damselflies

Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the order Odonata. Both of these insects share some key features and characteristics:

  • Aquatic larvae: Dragonfly larvae and damselfly larvae are aquatic, living in ponds and other water bodies.

  • Predatory nature: Both species are carnivorous, feeding on small insects and other aquatic creatures.

  • Highly developed eyes: These insects have sophisticated eyes, with over 20,000 to 30,000 individual lenses per head.

  • Winged adults: Adult dragonflies and damselflies have two pairs of wings with an ancient pattern of veins.

Here’s a comparison table to highlight some of their shared features:

Feature Dragonflies Damselflies
Aquatic Larvae Yes Yes
Predatory Nature Yes Yes
Highly Developed Eyes Yes Yes
Winged Adults Yes Yes

In their life cycle, both dragonflies and damselflies go through similar stages. They hatch from tiny eggs laid by their mothers during the previous summer or spring. The pond-bound larval stage can last several months to years, followed by a relatively short adult phase of about one month.

In summary, dragonflies and damselflies have several common features due to their shared classification in the Odonata order, such as their aquatic larvae, predatory nature, highly developed eyes, and winged adult forms.

Footnotes

  1. Damselflies, Dragonflies and Earwigs – University of Maryland Extension 2 3 4 5

  2. dragonflies and damselflies, Odonata – Entomology and Nematology Department 2

  3. Dragonflies and Damselflies | Princeton University Press 2

  4. Dragonflies and Damselflies | Horticulture and Home Pest News 2

  5. Damselfly Larvae

Reader Emails

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

Letter 1 – Damselfly Naiad

 

Strange Water Bug
In October of 2006 I started an small enclosed microecosystem with a fish, snails, and plants. It all lived until recently, however, a new bug has popped up inside and the container has never been opened. He is very skinny, with about 10 body segments, a tail that looks like three small feathers, what I believe to be antennea, and is tan in color. He has been growing and likes to stay at the bottom of the container on the rocks or in the plants. What is he???? A new type of bug? Thanks!!!
Erin F.
p.s. I attached the best pictures I could get in the water.

Hi Erin,
This is a Damselfly Naiad. It will become a winged adult. Damselfly Naiads are often introduced into aquaria on water plants. The three feathered “tail” are the gills.

Letter 2 – Damselfly Naiad

 

Subject: What’s the name of this bug?
Location: Southern Indiana
May 4, 2013 10:18 am
I just found this bug in the creek in by back yard. I would greatly appreciate it if u could identify it for me.
Signature: Haley

Damselfly Naiad
Damselfly Naiad

Hi Haley,
This is the aquatic nymph or naiad of a Damselfly, an insect that is in the same order as Dragonflies.  Damselfly Naiads can be recognized by their three lobed gills at the end of the abdomen.

Letter 3 – Damselfly Naiad

 

Subject: I believe I discovered a new water bug
Location: A slew in holt florida black water management
February 20, 2014 12:41 pm
So about a month before spring down in holt, Florida my pals an I were doin alittle fishing. We threw the cricket cage out to try to catch Minos for bait. When we pulled the cage in the weirdest bug I’ve seen in the water so far was sitting on the rim of it. None of us knew what it was and it peaked my interest so automatically I took a picture or two before my friends tried to leave me. Sorry I don’t have more pictures but if it is new id like to claim it.
Signature: Please help, Travis

Damselfly Naiad
Damselfly Naiad

Hi Travis,
We are sorry to disappoint you, but Damselfly Naiads, the aquatic nymphs of an insect related to the Dragonfly, are not a new ID, and different species are found throughout the globe.  We cannot provide you with the species for this Damselfly Naiad, but we can direct you to an image on BugGuide that looks very similar.

Damselfly Naiad
Damselfly Naiad

Letter 4 – Damselfly Naiad

 

Subject: I have never seen one of these
Location: Virginia, USA.
April 26, 2016 7:07 am
Found near a creek in Virginia . Halifax county area. It is a couple of inches long. Has a stinger looking apparatus on its tail.
Signature: Matt

Damselfly Naiad
Damselfly Naiad

Dear Matt,
This aquatic nymph is an immature Damselfly, commonly called a Naiad like other aquatic nymphs of flying insects.  Damselflies are classified with Dragonflies in the same insect order, Odonata.  What you have mistaken for a stinger is actually a tripart organ, the gills, used to extract oxygen from the water.

Damselfly Naiad
Damselfly Naiad
Damselfly Naiad
Damselfly Naiad

Letter 5 – Damselfly Naiad

 

Subject:  Bug found in water
Geographic location of the bug:  Choctaw Lake Ohio – man made lake
Date: 06/24/2018
Time: 03:43 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman:  Hi. My grand daughter found this bug while playing in our beach area. It looks a little like a tadpole when i it swims, but, it has 6 legs like a bug. We  caught this bug in a bucket then realized it after we took the photos.  If you can tell us what kind of big this is, we would appreciate it.
How you want your letter signed:  Lori McKinley

Damselfly Naiad

Dear Lori,
This is a naiad, a general term for the aquatic larva of a flying insect.  More specifically it is a Damselfly naiadDamselflies are beneficial insects related to Dragonflies, and they are predatory in both the larval form and the winged adult.

Thank you, Daniel. I can’t wait to share this information with my granddaughter. I really appreciate you taking the time to research this. Thanks again.

Letter 6 – Damselfly Naiad and ???

 

water creatures
I found these two water creatures in a creek. It looks like they may besome stage of a dragonfly or damsel fly. I don’t know? What do youthink they are. The small one is about 1/2 inch long and the larger oneis about an inch
Ryan

Naiads
Naiads

Hi Ryan,
The larger creature is most definitely a Damselfly Naiad, but the smaller creature is questionable. Perhaps one of our readers will be able to supply an answer.

Letter 7 – Damselfly Naiad found in aquarium

 

green bug from aquarium
June 3, 2009
found this bug swimming in my aquarium (oteh residents are pimelodus pictus (4), Chromobotia macracanthus (3), Ancistrus dolichopterus (2). i’m feeding my fish with sera mix chips and live bloodworms larve. it’s app. 1 inch in lenght, swimming by moving it’s body left and right.
help
Ljubljana, Slovenia, Europe

Damselfly Naiad
Damselfly Naiad

Dear In need of Help,
This is a Damselfly Naiad, the larval form of a winged insect similar to a Dragonfly.  Damselfly Naiads are predators, but they cannot handle adult fish.  Hatchlings and small fry might get eaten.  We suspect this Damselfly Naiad was introduced with the live Bloodworms.  We have been feeding our Angelfish live Mosquito Larvae we catch in the birdbath and in various places we keep water in the yard.  We suspect we have introduced a predator that ate some of our fry.

Letter 8 – Damselfly Naiad from the UK

 

Aquarium Larva
March 19, 2010
I know it’s not your usual fare, but I’m hoping you could help identify this larva. I found this specimen living in the filter of my tropical aquarium.
It is about 12mm long, and was not present a month ago. The water is hard, with a pH or 8.0 exactly, at around 25.5 degrees Celcius.
There were three specimens in the filter, all around the same size, but no evidence of any others anywhere else.
Thanks in advance.
Nik
Reading, UK

Damselfly Naiad

Hi Nik,
This immature Damselfly is known as a Naiad.  It was probably introduced to the aquarium on plants.

Letter 9 – Damselfly Naiad (Hoax: altered photograph????)

 

Strange insect
Hello – I found this critter in the Marys River, Corvallis OR, in some reeds on the bank. It is about 1 3/4 inches long. Can you help me figure it out?
Arthur Pelegrin

Hi Arthur,
This is a Damselfly Nymph known as a Naiad. They can be recognized by the trifurcate feathery gills on the tail end. Damselflies are related to Dragonflies, but are more delicate in form. Our big curiosity is the extra pair of legs. Could this image be digitally altered?????

Hi! The critter in the picture is an immature Calopteryx aequibilis, and the extra pair of legs and extra antenna are tricks of computer graphic editing. I’m an aquatic entomology teacher and sometimes use that picture to see if my students are paying attention, I just sent it to you as a joke. I hope you won’t take it amiss, I think you are providing a very valuable and commendable service with your website. I wish you the best of luck and look forward to the day when everyone knows what a toebiter is (you seem to get a lot of requests for that one!) Cheers and grins,
Arthur Pelegrin

Authors

    by
  • 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.

  • 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.

3 thoughts on “Damselfly vs Dragonfly: Unveiling the Key Differences”

  1. Hi Daniel,

    I think the smaller one is also a damselfly naiad, but with one gill missing. Maybe a predator bit off the third gill? I seem to remember years ago having seen other ones that were missing a part like this.

    best to you,

    Susan

    Reply
  2. These larvae are [or, once again, perhasp “were”] among the edible insects harvested from freshwater in Japan, various parts of South America, and elsewhere.

    Once, in a rather antiquated volume on insects, I read that ‘all aquatic insects can be eaten.’ I’m not so sure of this, but it might be true. I haven’t read about any particularly toxic aquatic species.

    Dave
    http://www.smallstockfoods.com

    Reply
  3. This is definitely a damselfly naiad on the top and a dragonfly naiad on the bottom. While similar they have distinct gills and size differences.

    Reply

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