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Monday, January 3, 2011

A tale of winged messengers

HUNTERS: Dragonflies and damselflies are carnivorous and their retractable jaws hold their prey
VISITOR: Indigenous Americans believe dragonflies and damselflies are message carriers for the gods.

By Mary Margaret

A flash of red flitted in and about and amongst the equally red ginger flowers.  The striking dragonfly was perfectly camouflaged by the fiery red ginger flowers bowing in the cool early morning breeze. I was hooked - I had become an 'oddy' - a watcher of dragonflies and damselflies. 
These remarkable insects are members of the order of Odanata (hence 'oddy') are split into two sub-orders Zygoptera (damselflies) and Anisoptera (true dragonflies).   Of the approximate 6,500 species worldwide, about 230 are found in Malaysia just about anywhere there is freshwater - jungles, streams, urban gardens and parks. 
Damselflies and dragonflies like most insects have two pairs of wings and six legs are relatively easy to identify through colour of their wings and body and the veination pattern of the wings. Like butterflies they can be released unharmed.   Damselflies eyes are do not touch and when at rest the wings are together.  The eyes of dragonflies on the other hand touch and when at rest the wings are flat.  
These insects are carnivorous and their retractable jaws hold their prey.  The adults when we see them flitting about are likely to be after insects smaller than themselves including flies, mosquitoes and ants.  The eggs which are laid near or in water hatch into ferocious nymphs, a stage which they remain for about 5 years, going after the larva of other insects and vertebrates, including tadpoles. 
These are 'good' insects and can act as ambassadors because we like them.  This was not always the case as according to European traditions they were a devil's darning needle and in Norwegian their name translates into eye poker.  Fortunately not all groups looked down on dragon and damselflies.
The First Nations (indigenous) People of North America associated dragonflies and damselflies with swift action and message carriers for the Gods.  The Navajo of South western USA associated them with pure water.
The Zunia, a Pueblo People of Mexico associated them with power.   According to a traditional tale, two children who had been accidentally left behind when their parents moved received instructions from the Gods, via dragonflies and damselflies. 
These insects also figure in Japanese folklore.  A poor farmer fell asleep after working ha field but dreamt that he had tasted sake.  His wife had seen dragonflies around him while he slept.  Anyways upon awakening he found that the water from a nearby stream tasted like sake.   Dragonflies are also believed to be the inspiration for helicopters.  An age-old Chinese toy is a dragonfly is believed to have inspires Sir George Cayley, the Father of Aviation to invent the helicopter and nature continues to inspire. 
Our fascination continues, as these stunning insects remain the source of inspiration, for example dragonfly jewellery and designs. 
Dragonflies and damselflies are found anywhere there is freshwater water from the jungles to the gardens, from streams to rivers and lakes.  These insects can be ambassadors because of the ease in which they can be differentiated and our fondness for them. 
About 15% of European dragonflies and damselflies are endangered.  The main culprits are pollution and the canalization of rivers; would a return to natural-like freshwater systems help them to survive.  The loss of this beautiful beneficial insect would be tragic. 
This is the season of resolutions - so lets resolve to be part of the solution.

Trueman, John W. H. and Richard J. Rowe. 2009. Odonata. Dragonflies and damselflies. Version 16 October 2009. http://tolweb.org/Odonata/8266/2009.10.16 in The Tree of Life Web Project, http://tolweb.org/

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