Dragonflies and damselflies are fascinating creatures that captivate nature enthusiasts with their unique features and behaviors. While they may appear similar at first glance, these insects are actually quite distinct from one another, each possessing its own unique characteristics.
Dragonflies are generally more robust, with their wings held perpendicular to their bodies when at rest. These agile fliers are known for their impressive hunting skills, capable of catching prey mid-flight. On the other hand, damselflies are more delicate in appearance, with their wings usually folded together above their bodies when at rest [^1^]. Their slender bodies also make them adept at navigating through aquatic vegetation, allowing them to deposit their eggs on underwater plants.
Dragonfly and Damselfly Basics
What Are Dragonflies and Damselflies
Dragonflies and damselflies are insects belonging to the order Odonata. These fascinating creatures can often be found near bodies of water and are known for their agile flight patterns and captivating colors.
- Size: Larger, more robust
- Eyes: Larger, often touching
- Wings: Held outstretched at rest
- Flight: Strong, fast fliers
- Example: Blue Dasher
- Size: Smaller, more delicate
- Eyes: Smaller, widely separated
- Wings: Held together above the body at rest
- Flight: Weaker, bouncier fliers
- Example: Blue-fronted Dancer
Similarities and Differences
The similarities and differences between dragonflies and damselflies can be best understood by comparing their key features:
|Size||Larger, more robust||Smaller, more delicate|
|Eyes||Larger, often touching||Smaller, widely separated|
|Wings at rest||Held outstretched||Held together above the body|
|Flight||Strong, fast fliers||Weaker, bouncier fliers|
|Aquatic nymph stage||Yes, called “naiad”||Yes, also called “naiad”|
Both dragonflies and damselflies have aquatic nymph stages called naiads, where they hatch from eggs laid on or near the water and spend most of their lives before becoming adults.
Body Shapes and Sizes
Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the order Odonata, but are classified into two suborders: Anisoptera (dragonflies) and Zygoptera (damselflies). The primary differences in their body shapes and sizes are:
- Dragonflies: Generally larger with robust bodies
- Damselflies: Usually smaller and possess slender bodies
Here’s a comparison table highlighting the differences:
Wings and Flight
Differences in their wings and flight patterns include:
- Dragonflies: Hind wings are broader than their forewings. They have strong, direct flight patterns and can hover.
- Damselflies: Wings of equal size and shape. More delicate fliers, and have a fluttery flight pattern.
Wing and Flight Features:
- Broader hind wings
- Strong, direct flight
- Equally-sized wings
- Fluttery flight pattern
Eyes and Colors
Both dragonflies and damselflies have large eyes, but there are key differences between the two:
- Dragonflies: Eyes are larger and usually touch at the top of the head.
- Damselflies: Eyes are separated by a gap on the head.
In terms of coloration:
- Dragonflies: Often display a range of bright, metallic colors.
- Damselflies: Generally exhibit more muted coloration, sometimes with iridescence.
Eyes and Colors:
- Large, touching eyes
- Bright, metallic colors
- Separated eyes
- Muted colors with occasional iridescence
Behavior and Habitat
Resting and Flying Positions
Dragonflies and damselflies both belong to the Odonata order, but they exhibit different behaviors in resting and flying positions. For instance:
- Thick body and robust shape
- Wings held perpendicular to the body when at rest
- Membranous wings with a small discal cell
- Slender body
- Wings held parallel or slightly folded back when at rest
- Membranous wings with a large discal cell
Feeding and Hunting Habits
Dragonflies and damselflies are both predators and play important roles in the ecosystems they inhabit. Their prey includes:
- Small fish (for some species)
Dragonflies are generally more robust and are known to catch larger prey, while damselflies are more delicate and tend to hunt more delicate insects.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
The life cycles of both dragonflies and damselflies are similar and involve three stages: egg, nymph, and adult. Key differences in their reproduction and life cycle include the following:
- Nymphs have internal gills and robust body shape
- Male appendages grasp the female’s head during mating
- Eggs can be laid in freshwater habitats such as rivers, ponds, and wetlands
- Nymphs have rectal tracheal gills and a slender body shape
- Male appendages grasp the female’s epiprocta (part of the abdomen) during mating
- Eggs can be laid in different habitats, including aquatic plants or floating debris in freshwater ecosystems
|Body Shape||Thick and robust||Slender|
|Wings at Rest||Perpendicular to the body||Parallel or slightly folded back|
|Prey||Larger insects and small fish||Delicate insects|
|Nymph Gills||Internal||Rectal tracheal|
|Mating Appendages||Grasp female’s head||Grasp female’s epiprocta|
|Egg Laying||Freshwater habitats||Varied freshwater habitats|
Despite their differences, both dragonflies and damselflies play critical roles in maintaining a balanced ecosystem and are indicators of healthy freshwater habitats. Famous species of dragonfly, like the Pantala flavescens, even contribute to pest control in gardens and agricultural fields.
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 – Saddlebags Dragonfly
unknown flying insect
Location: Fenton, Michigan
August 30, 2011 12:20 pm
We found this in our yard in Fenton, Michigan and have no idea what it is. It looks like a dragonfly with a stinger. Can you help us identify it.
Signature: Rich Galley
Because of the patterns on their wings, Dragonflies in the genus Tramea are known as Saddlebags. You can read more about Saddlebags on BugGuide. For the record, Dragonflies do not have stingers, but their appearance has lead to folklore and superstitions in countless locations worldwide that involve stitchery and bewitching.
Letter 2 – Skimmer Dragonfly
Here are two pictures of what seems to be (based on bugguide) a neon skimmer taken by my mother-in-law Linda in Austin, TX. She is pretty sure she took them in early september of this year. I thought it was interesting that the existing picture you have is from the same month and in the same city! Beatiful shots, don’t you think?
Based on the images on BugGuide, we agree that this is probably a Neon Skimmer, Libellula croceipennis, but our Dragonfly identification proficiency is questionable at best.
Letter 3 – Skimmer Dragonfly Naiads
I am soooo glad I found this website!! My 5 year son found these bugs in our pond. I have no idea what it is. So I could not tell him what it was called. We live in northwest (panhandle) Florida, in a city called Crestview.
These are Dragonfly Naiads. In the immature larval form, they are aquatic. They will survive in an aquarium and catch small insects, tiny fish and tadpoles. Eric Eaton provided this further classification: ” The dragonfly nymphs are some kind of skimmer dragonfly, family Libellulidae. The globe skimmers, genus Pantala frequently lay eggs in ridiculously small ponds, even fountains, so that would be my guess.”
Letter 4 – Shed Dragonfly Skin
prehistoric looking critter
Here is a real ugly critter. It resemble a grasshopper, but has ridges down his back and is almost black. He was sitting on the side of on of the support beams of the dock of our lake. Can you identify him for me? I looked in all of my reference books under grasshoppers and crickets and was unable to find him. If you need some more pictures, I can send them to you. The white strings on his back look like atrophied wings to me, but I might be mistaken. I was flat on the dock trying to aim the camera below me for these shots. Thanks for your help.
A Naiad crawled out of the lake, split its skin and flew away as an adult Dragonfly.
Letter 5 – Shed Skin of a Dragonfly Naiad
I have looked all over your site and others that are linked but haven’t been able to figure out what this critter is. This photo was mailed to me and I am told that the bug measured about two inches by one inch. It appears to be just a skeleton found on a board covering the crawl space to a camp in the Adirondack Mtns. Thanks for any insight you can provide.
This is the shed skin from the final moult of a Dragonfly Naiad. Naiads live under water. They moult several times to fascilitate growth since the exoskeleton cannot grow. At the time of the final moult, the Naiad climbs out of the water and sheds its skin, becoming a winged adult. This Naiad might be from a Common Skimmer based on the shape of the abdomen.
Letter 6 – Saddlebag Dragonfly
red saddlebag dragonfly? or maybe a kite-bug
Beautiful site. I looked through your dragonflies, this guy looks to me to be similar to the red saddlebags dragonfly picture. I thought to myself – but no, there aren’t any slow-moving rivers around here, but you know there is a canal a couple of miles east of here and we have had a lot of really strong winds from the east lately. Perhaps this one and his friend who didn’t make it into the picture were pushed over this way. On the chance that the kite aspect of this picture and the beautiful silhouetted wings make this a worthy picture, and because it might be a different kind of dragon fly, I’m sending it along. Thanks.
We are not sure if this is a Red Saddlebag Dragonfly, but it is definitely in that genus, Tramea. The photo really is quite beautiful.
Letter 7 – Possibly Ruby Meadowhawk
Dragonfly Some kind of Meadowhawk?
Thu, Feb 19, 2009 at 12:25 PM
Can you help me identify what kind of Meadowhawk dragonfly this is. I found this one late July, Hennepin County, Minnesota.
Richfield, Hennepin Cty., MN, USA
We have often mentioned that the exact identification of Dragonflies and Damselflies is not our strongest area, but just yesterday, Renaud Bernhard of Switzerland was kind enough to write to us and provide corrections to many of our unidentified or misidentified postings. We will post your letter and photo and hopefully Renaud can provide you with a correct answer.
Update: Monday, February 23, 2009
That one is tricky. There are three north american meadhowhawks species with female that are troublesome to ID
without close examination, all three shows those black triangles on the side of the abdomen and more or less extended
amber patches on the wings: Cherry-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum internum), Ruby Meadowhawk (Sympetrum rubicundulum) and
White-faced Meadowhawk (Symeptrum obtrusum). There I would say Ruby Meadowhawk but that’s only because the guide I have
says that female of it can have as much extended yellow patch on the wings.
I’m just an amateur wildlife lurker but I’m fascinated with dragonflies-damselfies so I have collected a few
Letter 8 – Skimmer Dragonfly
2 sets of wings, yellow with black line down the back and green head
June 7, 2010
Just curious if it’s dangerous as my elderly mother is always in her garden and this guy (or gal) whizzed by her and popped a squat on a stick near her fig tree.
This is one of two species of Skimmer Dragonflies in the genus Libellula and it is a female. It may be the Golden Winged Skimmer, Libellula auripennis, which is profiled on BugGuide, or it may be Needham’s Skimmer, Libellula needhami, also profiled on BugGuide. BugGuide indicates of Needham’s Skimmer: “Males are best separated from male Golden-Wings by redder face and body, along with brown lower hindlegs and less orange wings. Female and juvenile male Needham’s best separated from Golden-Wings by lateral thoracic pattern, augmented by the two-toned costa.” The Golden Winged Skimmer is restricted to coastal areas. Regarding the dangerous question, the species is not a consideration in our answer. Traditionally, Dragonflies are victims of many colorful rumors and are called by a wealth of diabolical names, including the Devil’s Darning Needle. As the Devil’s Darning Needle, it is believed that they will sew shut the lips of children who lied, women who scolded, and men who cursed, but this is false. Dragonflies help rid the world of mosquitoes and biting flies, and they are considered beneficial insects who will not harm people.
Letter 9 – Probably Blue Dasher
Male Pondhawk of some type?
Location: Raleigh Municipal Rose Garden, NC
June 27, 2011 2:23 pm
Greetings! My husband took this extreme closeup of what looks to be a male Eastern Pondhawk, except that the ’back’ is black. Is it a different version of a Pondhawk maybe? It was taken June 26, 2011 at the Rose Garden in Raleigh NC – there is a small goldfish pond with native plants where it probably lives & breeds.
Love your site! Take care…
Signature: looks but does not touch
We sometimes have a difficult time correctly identifying Dragonflies. We cannot say for certain that it is an Eastern Pondhawk based on the variations presented on BugGuide. Perhaps one of our readers will be able to confirm the identity of this beautiful Dragonfly.
Correction: Blue Dasher
June 30, 2011 11:38 am
I am by no means an expert, but I suspect the male dragonfly whose id you’re unsure about is a male Blue Dasher. The light-colored face, darker thorax (possibly with stripes that can’t be seen from this angle), and the smoky coloration on the wings distinguish it. I believe the obelisking posture is very common among Blue Dashers as well (though many dragonflies do it).
This photo from Bugguide looks like a good match.
Signature: Susan B.
We agree that the Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, seems like a much likelier identification.
Letter 10 – Potato Bug confused with Dragonfly
Location: bay area, CA
January 29, 2012 6:20 pm
I found this thing in our laundry room under a pile of clothes which had been sitting on the ground for about 4 days.
It looks like a new born bug because it shiny and fragile looking – but it’s rather large. Body is about 1 cm and head is 1/3 size of the body.
This is the second one of these I’ve found in our house in the last 1 year.
The first one was found in the washer – dead. It was larger than this one pictured.
It’s not clear yet if this an indoor bug that got in or an indoor bug period.
Looking at google, I see some dragon fly resemblance.
Signature: i don’t care
Dear i don’t care,
This is a Potato Bug or Jerusalem Cricket. It is classified in the insect order Orthoptera along with grasshoppers and crickets. Dragonflies have wings and they are classified in the insect order Odonata. Potato Bugs are subterranean dwellers that often wander indoors during or shortly after a rain.
Letter 11 – Saddlebags Dragonfly
Subject: Dragonfly variant or something else altogether?
Location: Houston, Texas
October 6, 2012 9:35 am
October, Houston TX. Looks like a dragonfly with bee/wasp markings and fuzz. Two large black leaflike appendages. About 2.5” long (based on the brick it’s perched on).
You are correct that this is a Dragonfly. It is one of the Saddlebags in the genus Tramea. It most closely resembles the Black Saddlebags, Tramea lacerata, especially the individual in this photo from BugGuide. The info page on BugGuide states: “Large dark ‘saddlebags’ on hindwings distinctive. Could be confused with Carolina or Red Saddlebags in poor light. Flies constantly, often gliding, perches infrequently.” It is reiterated later that the Black Saddlebags “Seldom perches” which makes your photograph a lucky snap.
Letter 12 – Red Dragonfly might be Scarlet Skimmer
Subject: Pretty Dragonfly??
Location: Dunedin, Florida
June 19, 2013 3:32 pm
Just wondered what this might be. I posted it to your Facebook page but never got a response. Is it just a pretty dragonfly?
Signature: Carol Borrelli
We are not certain, but this red Dragonfly looks to us like it might be a Scarlet Skimmer, Crocothemis servilia. According to BugGuide: “Native from southern Japan and China to northern Australia. Introduced accidentally to south Florida and to Oahu, Hawai’i.”
P.S. We do not respond to postings on the Facebook page as we have our hands full with the submissions that come directly to our website. On busy days, we are only able to respond to a small fraction of the identification requests and submissions we receive.
Thanks!! You guys are the best!!
Letter 13 – Saddlebags Dragonfly
Location: St. Louis
September 17, 2013 8:00 am
I know you’re busy so I tried to figure this out without bugging you (hee hee) but I was unable to identify this thing. When I found this, it was dead so maybe it’s a dragonfly who’s abdomen exploded and dried up?
Fantastic, thanks so much!
Letter 14 – Saddlebags Dragonfly
Subject: Saddlebag Dragonfly
Location: Pasco County, Florida
October 5, 2013 4:52 am
This beauty was hanging out on the window screen early morning.
Letter 15 – Saddlebags Dragonfly
Location: Owasso, OK (outside Tulsa)
September 11, 2014 8:10 am
Can you tell me what kind of bug this is? It looks like a cross between a moth/dragonfly/horsefly. Thanks!
Letter 16 – Saddlebags Dragonflies
Subject: Can you help me identify please
Location: Southeast Georgia
April 11, 2016 3:01 pm
Seen today on my poplar tree in southeast Georgia. Thank you!
Pest or helper?
Signature: Thanks! Birgit Atwood
We are seeing double. These are a Saddlebags in the genus Tramea, and in the suborder Anisoptera, the Dragonflies. Dragonflies eat large quantities of flying insects, including Mosquitoes, so we place them solidly in the “helper” category. Five of the seven known species of Saddlebags are pictured on BugGuide.
Thank you so much! I shooed them away yesterday thinking they were eating my new buds! No more!
Letter 17 – Saddlebags Dragonfly
Subject: never seen a bug like this
Location: KC Missouri
July 8, 2016 5:25 pm
I live in the Midwest KC Missouri to be exact, saw this bug in my driveway.
This is a Dragonfly, and its wing pattern indicates that it is one of the Saddlebags or Dancing Gliders in the genus Tramea, but it appears to have met an untimely end as it has a missing abdomen. Some predator, perhaps a bird, ate the soft part of the body and left the harder wings, legs and head.
Letter 18 – Saddlebags Dragonfly
Subject: big dragonfly
August 22, 2017 7:15 am
can you tell me what dragonfly is this
This is one of the Saddlebags Dragonflies in the genus Tramea, and based on its color and its resemblance to this BugGuide image, we believe it is a Black Saddlebags. According to BugGuide: “Seldom perches.”
Letter 19 – Possibly Swamp Darner in Flight
Geographic location of the bug: Moosehead Lk. Area in Maine
Time: 09:55 AM EDT
I like to post photos of nature but I always want my identification to be accurate. Photo may not be as clear for what you need. At first I thought Aeshna species and now after 3 days of looking I now lean towards Swamp. I just don’t know….Help please! Who knew there are so many varieties!! 🙂
How you want your letter signed: Karen
Based on BugGuide images, we agree that this might be a Swamp Darner, and we concur that identifying Dragonflies is a challenge.
Thank you!!!!! I now finally have an ID! So glad I found you and I will be back! 🙂
Letter 20 – Possibly Carmine Skimmer
Strange Visitor-Fuschia Colored Dragonfly
Location: Panamá (the country). The photos were taken in Arraijan, a mountain-like area
January 17, 2011 4:18 am
Hi! I read all dragonfly posts I could find but couldn’t identify this dragonfly. We have a rain drain in the back that’s quite like a pond in some places and we get dragonflies (honey colored small ) and damselflies(bluets, mostly) but this one came in one day out of nowhere, in the afternoon. It was quite big, with a striking fuschia tone. The color was so bright it caught my atention 10 meters away. I couldn’t get any closer to it because it sat on the other side of the drain, but if you could try to identify it, I would be very grateful. I’m trying to find out if this strange visitor is natural to the country in which I live.
Signature: Thanks, Lilith
We believe this may be a Carmine Skimmer, Orthemis discolor. According to BugGuide, the range is: “Central Texas, west into Arizona, south through Central America” and it may be identified because of its coloring which is “Brilliant pink, sometimes purplish, sometimes more red, with bright red eyes and face. Face and eyes typically as brightly colored or brighter than the body; compare to Roseate Skimmer, in which the eyes and face are usually darker than the body.” That physical description fits the individual in your photograph.
Thank you so much fo the ID.. from what your description says about range, it makes me think a storm brought it close to where I live, because although in summer
it becomes a bit desertic, he/she came in rainy season …
Letter 21 – Possibly Pale Snaketail
Possibly Ophiogomphus bison?
Location: Living Prairie Museum, Winnipeg, Canada
August 13, 2010 12:51 am
Took this pic while visiting Winnipeg’s Living Prairie Museum in June 2008. Just now getting around (tsk tsk) to finishing labeling and filing the pics. I think I located this dragonfly on BugGuide as the Bison Snaketail (Ophiogomphus bison) but would like your take on it to make sure. Also that name did not come up when I did a search on your site so if it is, perhaps you’d like a picture of one.
BugGuide lists the range of the Bison Snaketail as California and Oregon only, so we don’t believe that is your species. Exact Dragonfly identification is difficult for us. We believe you have the genus correct. BugGuide lists the range of the Pale Snaketail, Ophiogomphus severus, as including nearby Saskatchewan, so we believe that is a better candidate.
Hello again, Daniel. Okay, this time I think we are much closer on a proper ID of the photo I submitted on 12 Aug (I reattached the same pic). Looking at pics of the Pale Snaketail, it just didn’t have the right coloration. I have seen several Gomphus which are in that geographic range and look very similar. Wondering if there is ever so much variation to account for the difference I see in my pic and those online of Midland Clubtail (Gomphus fraternus manitobanus) because I believe they are not supposed to have the yellow spot on the last large segment of tail, like the Plains Clubtail (Gomphus externus). The Plains seem really yellow compared to mine, but perhaps there is variation by age/location? Someone posted a pic of what looks like an identical insect to BugGuide Hoping someone with knowledge of these Manitoban insects can enlighten us all. At any rate, I don’t believe my pic is of either Pale or a Bison Snaketail, now. Thanks, Dee
Letter 22 – Possibly Scarlet Skimmer
Location: Vero Beach, FL
February 27, 2012 6:17 pm
I was down in florida last year and I got lucky and saw a few different kinds of things that no one that lived there knew what they were so I found your site and thought it would be cool to know what they were… I just kept running across interesting insects,etc..
Signature: Brandy Kay
WE believe your Dragonfly is a Scarlet Skimmer, Crocothemis servilia. According to BugGuide, the Scarlet Skimmer is a: “Native from southern Japan and China to northern Australia. Introduced accidentally to south Florida and to Oahu, Hawai’i” and “In the US, typically uses low-quality wetlands, either artificially constructed or highly degraded, where low dissolved oxygen, introduced fish, or other alterations make the habitat unsuitable for sensitive native species.” Your spider is an Orchard Spider and the beetle is an Eyed Elater.
Letter 23 – Possibly Widow Skimmer
Location: Missouri River – Nebraska City, NE
February 1, 2012 4:46 pm
I took this photo on July 2nd, 2011 in Nebraska City, NE. the Missouri River was flooded and the dragonflies grew huge.
it was about 2” long and had a 4” wingspan.
any idea what species it is?
We often have a great deal of difficulty with the identification of Dragonflies to the species level, but we will do our best. We believe this closely resembles a Widow Skimmer, Libellula luctuosa, which we found pictured on BugGuide. The description on BugGuide is: “Mature males have a large basal area of brown on each of the four wings, and each wing also has a whitish area roughly at the middle. Their brown bodies become increasingly pruinose (whitish) as they get older. Females and immature males have the same brown wing bands as the mature males, but not the whitish areas. Wings usually have a brown tip. A dorsal view of the abdomen shows a brown band at center with a yellow stripe running along each side.” Since there are no white patches on the wings, we suspect this is most likely a female or an immature male.