During the Paleozoic era – more than 500 million years ago – humongous dragonflies dominated the skies. Thankfully, our modern dragonflies have scaled down to be more manageable in size. However, many other defining characteristics have stayed the same.
While there are more than 5,000 dragonflies, they all typically have long bodies, large eyes, and transparent wings. Dragonflies fly up and down, almost like hummingbirds, to capture their prey. They're found around water areas, including swamps, streams, lakes, ponds, rivers, and canals.
Let's explore 14 unique families of dragonflies.
Aeshnidae are thought to be the largest dragonfly, growing between 2-5 inches (50.8-127 mm) long – but don't let their size distract you. They're also said to be the fastest fliers of all the dragonflies. Also known as hawkers, Aeshnidae mate while flying, lying their larvae in nearby water. They are brown with blue, yellow, and green markings and are most commonly found in North America.
Austropetaliidae dragonflies are less common, typically found around water in Argentina, Chile, and Australia. They are brown with white silver to transparent wings. Austropetaliidae dragonflies have a medium to large body. There are only four species that are part of this family.
Cordulegastroidea dragonflies are found in North America, with nine species as part of this family. They have a life span of 3 to 5 years and are avid fliers. That doesn't mean Cordulegastroidea dragonflies aren't territorial. The males tend to exhibit territorial behaviors, and all Cordulegastroidea dragonflies will eat what is available. They have black and brown bodies with yellow markings.
Unlike other dragonflies that make their home exclusively by water, Cordulegastroidea dragonflies like to burrow in the sand, small streams, or substrates. They hide, only allowing their head to be seen from the surface. Even their females lay their eggs deep under the surface, trapping air bubbles along the way.
Corduliidae are a common dragonfly with distinctive emerald green eyes that earned them the nickname 'the emerald dragonfly.' They have short, broad bodies with no frontal horn. Instead, Corduliidae dragonflies have small, smooth lobes on their heads. These dragonflies typically live between 2 to 4 years based on their environment, and some can be rarer than others.
Corduliidae dragonflies are commonly found in the United States, particularly in Florida and Texas, because of the availability of water like ponds, lakes, marshes, and swamps. Corduliidae dragonflies are most active during the day as their mating and feeding schedules are dependent on sunlight.
Darners have large black bodies with markings on them with dark and transparent wings. Males tend to have dark blue dots, while females have yellow and green on their bodies. They are found throughout the United States near bodies of water. There are more than 40 species of Darner dragonflies. While they are part of the same family, each has similar yet distinctive characteristics that make it easy to tell them apart.
Glider dragonflies have a brown-yellow body with wings that are both transparent and gold and orange-tinted with black markings. Males feature a reddish face, while the females have a dull yellow one. Glider dragonflies feed on insects like ants, mosquitos, bees, and butterflies. Glider dragonflies are known by many names because of their ability to traverse the world, including globe wanderer, wandering glider, and globe skimmer. They are found in water, including pools, ponds, and more.
Gomphidae dragonflies are found throughout North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. With more than 900 species, it's no wonder they are so widespread. Gomphidae dragonflies are also called the Clubtail dragonfly. They have green, turquoise, and blue eyes that are small with a wide gap between them. Unlike other dragonflies, Gomphidae dragonflies try to blend into their surroundings with a toned-down body instead of their metallic counterparts.
Libellulidae dragonflies are among the largest dragonfly families, with more than 1,000 species part of this family. They are also known as skimmers or perchers based on their behaviors. Libellulidae dragonflies vary in distinguishing characteristics, including having small-to-medium-sized bodies, thick or thin abdomens, colorful bodies, and distinctive wings, to name a few.
As skimmers and cruisers, Macromiidae dragonflies can be found most commonly in the middle of bodies of water. They have green eyes that meet at the top of their heads, which is the main feature that sets them apart from Aeshnidea dragonflies. There are more than 25 species as part of this family.
Petaluridae are among the oldest dragonflies globally, first emerging around 150 million years ago. One of their most defining characteristics is a long straight tail, even earning them the nickname petal tales. They originated in New Zealand, though they can be found throughout Australia. There are 11 species inside the Petaluridae family, including some of the largest dragonflies, with bodies 3.94 in (100 mm) in length and a 6.3 in (160 mm) wingspan.
Saddlebag dragonflies are native to North America, especially in the Caribbean and Hawaii. They love water but prefer homes that are slow-moving and free from fish. Saddlebag dragonflies migrate in during the fall, moving toward the coast or the shores of Lake Michigan. They feed on mosquito larvae, helping to cull the population. Saddlebag dragonflies court each other and reproduce by dancing, with the males circling their intended mate. Because of it, Saddlebag dragonflies earned the name dancing gliders.
Synthemistidae is some of the oldest dragonflies on this list, with roots in Australia and New Guinea. They are small with slender abdomens, typically found in ponds, lakes, streaks, and other bodies of water. Also called tiger tails or southern emerald dragonflies, there are 43 species under the Synthemistidae family. Synthemistidae dragonflies are often confused for the corduliid and gomphid dragonflies. They can be categorized as a subfamily because of it.
Dragonflies are beautiful insects, typically found in tropical and temperate climates along bodies of water. However, because of a rise in water pollution, some dragonflies are becoming endangered as their habitats are destroyed.
Dragonflies are essential parts of the ecosystem, serving as both hunters and prey for many other insects. It's vital to preserve their essential role lest we face dire consequences – and an increase in mosquitos is just the beginning.