On the wing of a dragon

On the wing of a dragon

A creamy coloured egg, the size of a pinhead, drifted down through the water. It slowly sank to rest on the brown rotting leaves lying on the mud at the bottom of the still pool. Over the next day, it become yellow-brown. A day later, eyespots appeared. After two weeks, the egg was dark orange, ready for hatching. When the larva emerged, it was encased in a sheath, from which it quickly escaped. It had a broad head, with an eye on each side and short antennae. Behind its head, attached to the thorax were six jointed legs. Its abdomen was wide with eleven segments, each covered by a plate across its body. Inside the end of its abdomen were its gills.

The larva, known as a nymph or mudeye, pumped water over its gills, extracting oxygen, then expelling a jet, allowing it to dart rapidly through the water. The mudeye hid among the reeds at the edge of the pool, where it was less obvious to predators, such as fish, frogs and waterbirds. It waited. A wriggling mosquito larva swam closer and closer. The mudeye darted towards it, its jaws extending rapidly as it struck the wriggler and ate it.

Image: Wendy Cook

Over the next year, the mudeye moulted ten times, as it grew. It caught larger prey, including tadpoles, aquatic beetles and small fish. After its last moult, the mudeye ceased feeding. Its body began to change. One morning it crawled up a reed and out of the water for the first time. Its claws held the stalk as its skin split open down its back. Over the next hour, an adult emerged, his long body soft and dull, his wings crumpled. His skin hardened. Air expanded his body. His transparent wings spread as he pumped blood-like fluid into the veins. The brown shell of his last moult remained clinging to the reed as the dragonfly flew away.

The dragonfly soon left the water, chased away by an aggressive male. Over the next few days his body colours brightened with patterns of yellow, brown and black. His two large compound eyes and three smaller ones gave him excellent vision in most directions. His four wings, capable of moving independently, allowed him to hover and fly in any direction, including up, down and backwards, and to change course abruptly. He was a predator of smaller insects, catching them easily in his legs as he flew.

Image: Wendy Cook

When he had matured, the dragonfly returned to the water. He entered another dragonfly’s territory. The younger dragonfly was larger and following an aerial skirmish, noisy with whirring wings, he chased away the former owner of twenty metres of the reedy shoreline. Now he patrolled his territory constantly, chasing away any intruding males, feeding and waiting for females to arrive. At night, he rested on a reed. He needed to warm in the morning sun before flying. When a female, ready to mate, approached, the male grasped her behind her head, with the end of his abdomen. The female bent her body under his to collect sperm from under the front of his abdomen. They flew in this wheel position. When the female was ready to lay eggs, she let go of the male, but he continued to hold her, guarding her from other males. She laid her eggs in the water of his territory, using his sperm to fertilise them. When she had finished, she left the water to hunt away from the males.

One night while the dragonfly rested on a reed, it began to rain heavily. By morning the water level had risen. Dragonflies are cold-blooded. Before he had a chance to warm up sufficiently to fly, he was seen by a frog in the water among the reeds. The frog swam closer and flicked out her sticky tongue. The dragonfly stuck. He was pulled off the reed, into the frog’s mouth and swallowed. Another male would take over his territory.

In the water nearby, dark orange eggs were ready to hatch. More mudeyes emerged.

Banner image courtesy of Wendy Cook.

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