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flora & fauna  

A closer look at Canada's Odonates
Those fascinating dragonflies and damselflies

©Outdoor Adventure Canada

Anyone that canoes or hikes in areas where there are numerous ponds and lakes has met up with dragonflies or damselflies. My first experiences with these creatures were as a child. I remember sitting at the edge of the pond with my Dad watching the "helicopters" and how fascinated I was with them.

Dragonflies and damselflies are part of an order of insects that is over 300 million years old, odonata. There are more than 5000 members of the Odonata order throughout the world and many of these can be found in Canada. There are 85 recorded species and 9 families of odonata in Algonquin Park alone.

What is the difference between dragonflies and damselflies? Well the most prominent difference is the wings. Dragonflies are from a suborder named anisoptera and their wings are horizontal and at a right angle to insect's body. Anisoptera fully open their wings. The suborder zygoptera or damselflies hold their wings behind their bodies and they only open their wings part way. The pattern that is visible on the wings is actually the veins of that makes the wings fast and strong. Dragonflies can even fly in reverse and move each wing independently from the others. Damselflies are generally smaller than Dragonflies and the eyes of a damselfly are set wider apart. Both have enormous compound eyes which allow them to easily see their prey and the Odonates also have three regular eyes.

Both suborders are predacious and they feed on other insects which they catch with their legs. Odonates use their legs like little baskets to scoop their prey. Once we were at the Cascades near Algonquin Park's Barron Canyon on a campsite that was basically a large clearing. Much to our delight we were bombarded with dragonflies who voraciously ate up all the mosquitoes on our site. This all took place at dusk and it was somewhat surreal. We actually had to sit down to avoid the activity in the air.

The life cycle of a dragonfly varies from species to species. In its naiad form a dragonfly or damselfly can live anywhere from months to a few years in the water. Habitats range from rivers to ponds and even bogs. Odonates eat water dwelling insects. Dragonfly naiads have even been known to eat the odd tadpole. They shed their naiad shell and sit for many hours waiting for their bodies to expand. Blood flows into the wings and during this stage they are in great danger of being eaten by frogs and other creatures. Ironically odonates eat tadpoles as naiads then risk being devoured by frogs later in their life cycle.

During mating the males seek out the females. The two bodies form a contorted heart shape and the male transfers his sperm from his genitals at the abdomen to his secondary sex organs. The male has claspers at the end of his tail. He uses these to grab the female behind the neck and she will bring herself up to his secondary sex organs and transfer begins. If accepted the male will transfer his sperm to the female. Some males will even scoop out sperm deposited by a previous male. It is quite an acrobatic feat. The male protects the female while she deposits her eggs in the water and wards off other males.

Often you will see dragonflies and damselflies in sunnier conditions except for the Fawn Darner which is more prominent on overcast days or at dusk.

One of my favourite odonates is the Ebony Jewelwing. This Damselfly has a metallic body and dramatic black wings and is found near streams and rivers. Dragonflies such as the Canada Darner and the Common Green Darner have spectacular colourations. The Common Green Darner is one of the largest dragonflies in Canada.

Even as an adult I'm still captivated with these creatures. In May of 2004 I had the opportunity to watch the emergence of what I believe to be Uhler's Sunfliers. It was incredible to see the naiad exit his outer body and spread his wings for the first time.

Written by Laurie March
Dragonfly and Damselfly photos by Laurie March

masthead photo courtesy




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