Never have I looked more stupid than when I tried to catch a dragonfly in a net. Bug catching has been a hobby of mine for a few years now. One summer, as I was out catching bugs in the mountains, a beautiful blue darner dragonfly zipped in and out of my peripheral field of view. Unlike most dragonflies I had encountered, this one remained within my reach for quite sometime, so I tightened my grip on the net and tried to catch it. I swung my net up and down, left and right, and in every angle imaginable trying to catch that dragonfly. In my mind, I was like a disciplined samurai, quick and precise with every swing. But to others watching me from afar, I probably looked similar to a four year old reenacting a Jedi light saber battle. Unfortunately, this Jedi/samurai lost the fight. No matter which direction I swung my net, the dragonfly was one step ahead of me and could change speeds and directions like no other flying insect I had previously encountered. It uses these masterful flying skills to hunt its favorite meal, the mosquito. The dragonfly has mastered the adaptation of flight and has thus made it onto my list of this month’s Evolutionary Mash-ups.
Before becoming a lethal aerial hunter, the dragonfly started as a flightless aquatic-borne larva. It remains in the larval stage for up to two years. A dragonfly’s favorite meal is mosquito, whether it is a flying adult or an aquatic larva. But the larva have been known to eat almost anything that will fit in their mouths including tadpoles, small fish, and insect larvae. To catch a meal underwater, it has a long, retractable jaw which it can shoot out at speeds near a hundredth of a second. And you thought the flying adult was a lethal killer!
Besides flight, the dragonfly has other adaptations that make it a deadly hunter. Most notably, it has incredible eyesight. It’s eyes make up the vast majority of head for a good reason. Dragonflies can have up to 30,000 lenses inside their eyes and they have a field of vision nearly up to 360 degrees. They can virtually see in any direction in space, and can spot prey from extreme distances. Another adaptation worth noting is its ability to read and control minute changes in air flow using tiny hairs on the surface of its wings and its stubby antennae between its eyes.
Dragonflies are the fastest and most skilled of the flying insect world. Make a dragonfly the size of a bird and it could compete with the best of the flying animal world as well. Dragonflies have been around for almost 300 million years and even rubbed shoulders with our friends, the dinosaurs. They have had a lot of time to master the ability to fly. So what makes dragonflies such masters of aerodynamics? Well, to start, up to half their body mass is devoted to flight muscles. These muscles allow them to reach flight speeds of up to thirty five miles an hour. These muscles also allow them to outmaneuver any other insect because of all the options they have for flight movement: taking off forwards or backwards, performing sharp turns, hovering in mid-air, changing directions instantaneously, and even somersaulting in mid-air. They are basically the fighter pilots of the insect world! Their wings look like a brittle plastic, but they are actually sturdy, cross-braced structures that can allow them to perform almost any aerodynamic effect.
Now for the mash-up. What do you get when you combine a giraffe with the wings of a dragonfly? Of course, let’s give the giraffe dragonfly wings that are proportionate to its body size and include the muscles necessary for the dragonfly wings to do their job. What you get is the most terrifying and dominate herbivore this planet has ever seen! Any other plant-eater that lives in the same area as the giraffe dragonfly would need to wait for the scraps this monster leaves behind. Not only does the long neck and large body size allow this creature to reach virtually any greenery, but now it has incredible flight abilities to reach even higher locations for food. It may also use this flight to avoid carnivorous predators trying to get a large meal. I may even venture to say that no predator currently in existence could touch this herbivore. The one chance a predator may have is to sneak up behind the giraffe dragonfly because unfortunately, we only gave the creature dragonfly wings, not dragonfly eyes.
Stay tuned next week as I give our giraffe with dragonfly wings a new and unique adaptation! The March evolutionary mash-up continues! Also, stay tuned at the end of the month when I post some awesome art work by some incredibly talented artists whom I tasked with the job of creating a sketch of our evolutionary mash-up. It is going to be EPIC!
Spineless Wonders. Strange Tales from the Invertebrate World. Book by Richard Conniff, 1996.
*All photography above was taken by yours truly, the author of life through green tinted glasses, Jay Merrill.
If you read this whole blog post, you are my hero! Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave me a comment and feedback below. Also, let me know if there is any particular science topic you would like me to look at “through green tinted glasses” and I will write about it.