Amazing Nature

The Rough-and-Tumble Love Stories of Dragonflies

Jun 2019
Author: Green Power
A male Neurobasis chinensis displaying its graceful wings
A male Neurobasis chinensis displays its graceful wings to win the female’s heart at first sight.
© Elaine Yuen

Courtship matters. In every corner of the animal kingdom, males attract females by seemingly every means possible. Abilities such as releasing unique scent, displaying beautiful traits and offering a stable home, are equally impressive. Male dragonflies, however, are ruthless lovers - barbarically trying to push down every female that enters their territories to mate.

In common contexts, the term “dragonfly”, which has been loosely used, refer to species mostly from two suborders: dragonflies and damselflies. They share similar appearance and behaviour. Notwithstanding the unromantic relatives they have, some of the male dragonflies, such as those from families Calopterygidae and Chlorocyphidae, know how to approach a female gently by displaying their wings and other body parts, or even showing off the suitable breeding sites in their territories.

The reproduction method of dragonflies is one of a kind. A male adult dragonfly has two sets of genitals: the first set, which produces sperm, is in the ninth abdominal segment; the second set, which stores sperm for copulation, is in the second and third abdominal segments. The adult female dragonfly has its only genitalia near the rear of her abdomen. The extra set in the male, in fact, is the answer to the myth of their unique copulatory posture.

Take a closer look at the tip of the abdomen of a male dragonfly, where you could find clasp-shaped anal appendages attached to it. When mating, the male grasps the female's head – or prothorax – by the appendages, forming a tandem pair. They are the locks and the keys; only the same species would fit to tie the knot. A sexually receptive female will curl its abdomen forwards, connecting the secondary genital of the male, forming a “wheel” in a heart or oval shape. While some may prefer settling themselves before "having the hots", some abruptly do their baby making in the air.

A copulating pair of Orthetrum glaucum
A conspicuous heart-shaped “wheel” performed by a copulating pair. (Picture of Orthetrum glaucum)

Better safe than sorry

First things first. After mating, the female will get straight down to the search for an oviposition site. Dragonflies could never be more mindful of this matter. Damselflies and members of the family Aeshnidae have a robust ovipositor at the end of their abdomens. The mother would look for a desirable aquatic plant, cutting the plant with its ovipositor and depositing its eggs in it. Therefore, the eggs could effectively stay away from predators and prevent moisture loss by being enclosed in a humid environment.

Some dragonflies, such as those of the genus Gynacantha, are fans of seasonal ponds. Taking advantage of the changing water levels, they are fond of random puddles in woodlands, or even those inside tree holes and bamboo tubes. These water bodies are removed from the larger ones and thus unfavourable to larger predators such as fish, which should mean a higher survival rate for the larvae.

Relatively speaking, species from the family Libellulidae are more adaptable among dragonflies. They could breed in various environments, including marshes, ponds or even ditches. Due to their resilient nature, the mothers are more carefree - they would give birth by briefly touching the water, or sometimes airdropping on it!

A male Prodasineura croconota grasping the female’s neck by its anal appendages
A male damselfly guards its ovipositing partner by holding the tandem – the mating position that grasps the female’s neck by its anal appendages. (Picture of Prodasineura croconota)

Stay or go

A male partner’s attendance during childbirth may be vital indeed. Many male dragonflies demonstrate their paternity by protecting the wives that are about to lay eggs. Either maintaining the pairing or simply hovering around could safeguard the mother from being snatched by other males. Not surprisingly, some male dragonflies will untie the knot soon after getting the female up the duff. In mother nature, rolling stones do not come singly, but unfortunately, dragonflies also share some atrocious characteristics with humans.