Dragonflies of Florida’s Nature Coast
I have always thought that dragonflies were fascinating. They seem to materialize out of nowhere and then disappear again. Occasionally, I would see one land on a stick or object and rest (I assume), then take off in an entirely new direction.
Until I became a NatureCoaster, I didn’t see too many dragonflies, but as I got out and explored the woods, water, and fields of Florida’s Nature Coast, I began to notice these amazing insects came in different colors, sizes, and even wing patterns!
Then I began wondering where the name “dragonfly” originated…
Figuring it was because dragonflies are big and bold, flying fast and furious, and voraciously eating other flying insects for their sustenance that they received that aggressive name. The only thing they seem to be missing is the fire breath!
The origin of the name “Dragonfly”
One interesting theory about its origin, however, can be found in a book written by Eden Emanuel Sarot in 1958 entitled Folklore of the Dragonfly: A Linguistic Approach. He theorized that the name dragonfly came about because of an ancient Romanian Folktale in which the Devil turned a beautiful horse ridden by St. George (of St. George and the dragon fame) into a giant, flying insect.
The Romanian names that people supposedly used to refer to this giant insect meant ‘St. George’s Horse’ or, more commonly, ‘Devil’s Horse’ when translated into English. The Romanian word used translates to both dragon and devil, so over time, dragonfly eventually became the English name.
The Origin of the Dragonfly’s Scientific Name
Dragonflies belong to the order Odonata, characterized by large multifaceted eyes, two pairs of strong, transparent wings, and an elongated body.
The scientific name Odonta comes from the words “tooth-jawed” because the Johann Christian Fabricius, the entomologist who named them studied the dragonflies’ mouths in order to distinguish the different species. Dragonflies have strong, jagged mandibles that they use to catch their prey in flight. Now their wings are studied as well to classify different types.
Dragonflies and their relatives are an ancient group. The oldest fossils are of the Protodonata from the 325 million years ago, and include the largest insect that ever lived, with wingspans of up to 30 inches!
The largest Dragonfly today is in Costa Rica with a wingspan of 7 ½ inches. In the Nature Coast, the largest dragonfly I have noticed has about a 5-inch wingspan and is called a Saddlebag Dragonfly.
Dragonflies are amazing insects that are fast-moving fliers. That eat annoying insects like mosquitoes and flies from their larval stage through their adulthood, making them wonderful additions to any garden or pondscape.
Despite their fierce name, dragonflies do not sting or bite people. In fact, I have had several blue iridescent dragonflies light on me when floating on the Rainbow River or the Weeki Wachee River. Clean water is important to dragonfly habitat.
Dragonflies live around bodies of water, using specific ecosystems for their larvae to hatch and grow. These nymphs are predators, eating other aquatic larvae, such as tadpoles and insects to grow. As the dragonfly nymphs progress through their stages, they consume larger and larger prey, even getting up to fish fry!
Dragonflies Eat Lots of Unwanted Insects
Dragonflies are predators, both in their aquatic larval stage and in their adult lives. The larval stage of dragonflies lasts up to five years in large species, and between two months and three years in smaller species. Several years of their lives are spent as nymphs living in fresh water; the adults are on the wing for only a few months.
Many dragonflies are territorial, defending a territory against others of their own species. Some dragonflies will protect a territory against other species of dragonfly and a few against insects in unrelated groups.
Did you know that Dragonflies mate in a complex, predetermined process? The female dragonfly deposits eggs on floating or waterside vegetation after she has positioned herself precisely with the male to fertilize the eggs and they have flown together in a heart-shaped union!
Most dragonfly females lay their eggs in mud or water. The nymphs hatch within a few weeks and then live in water for up to two years. Because of this, dragonflies are especially numerous near bodies of water, with the ability to fly to and from their home base easily.
Dragonflies are Fast and Furious!
Dragonflies are fast, agile fliers, reaching speeds of up to 30 miles per hour and sometimes migrating across seas and oceans, and often live near water. This speed helps them avoid predators like birds and frogs and enables them to capture their own food.
These amazing insects can move in any direction and change direction suddenly. In flight, the adult dragonfly can propel itself in six directions: upward, downward, forward, backward, to left and to right. Their wings are powered directly which is unusual in the insect world and they have four distinct power patterns for taking flight ranging from aircraft-style lift to a vortex system.
Their huge compound eyes help them see prey, which they catch in mid-air and their powerful jaws allow them to clamp onto their victims until they are devoured.
Dragonflies can also be migratory. In many parts of the United States, these lovely little insect eaters are only seen in the warmer months. In Florida’s Nature Coast, however, we are able to enjoy the seasonal influx of dragonflies migrating south to breed, as well as many full-time resident populations. There are over 100 species of dragonflies found in Florida, 67 of which have had recorded sightings in the Nature Coast.
Common Nature Coast species of Dragonflies
The red saddlebag (Tramea onusta) and black saddlebag (Tramea lacerata) are recognizable for the dark, saddlebag-like pattern found on their wings. I have seen a lot of these in the fields behind Lake Townsend Park, cruising along and then resting on a blade of grass or a
The common green darner (Anax junius) is a lovely, generally jewel-toned dragonfly. You can distinguish adult males thanks to their blue abdomens; females are green. Immature dragonflies of this species have violet abdomens. These are the ones that have landed on me while I lounged on the rivers.
Dragonflies are numerous in Florida’s Nature Coast, with 67 species reported to The Dragonfly Society of the Americas’ wonderful website, Odonata Central. You can see the list by clicking here, and if you click on the name of each species, photos will display.
To see photos of Florida Dragonflies, you can visit https://www.insectidentification.org/insects-by-type-and-region.asp?thisState=florida&thisType=Dragonfly%20or%20Damselfly
Dragonfly populations are affected by habitat destruction. They require fresh water to reproduce and live for years in the water before reaching their adult flying stage. Therefore, when roads and subdivisions are built, the dragonfly populations are likely to be reduced.
You can learn a lot about dragonflies (and Florida dragonflies) from the sites below: