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Gossamer Wings: Damselflies and Dragonflies of the Western Ghats

Odonates are older than the mountains, and among the first creatures on Earth to fly. Their presence indicates a healthy and harmonious ecosystem

Text by: RG Sustain Staff

Insects are the most biologically diverse group of organisms on the planet. At present, we know of about 9,00,000 species, and there are millions more that haven’t been documented by science. Of all of these bees, bugs, beetles, and butterflies, it is the humble dragonfly that was the first group of insects to attain flight.

Dragonflies and damselflies — collectively called odonates — are among some of the oldest winged insect group on Earth. They have been around for 250 million years, making this order of organisms older than the Western Ghats. As K A Subramanian eloquently writes in his e-book, Damselflies and Dragonflies of Peninsular India, “The wings of dragonflies and damselflies flag the triumph of metazoa over land and air.”

There are over 6,000 species of Odonata on the planet, and most of them depend on freshwater habitats. India has over 500 species, with the greatest diversity in the Western Ghats and Northeast India. This jewel of a damselfly is a male stream glory (Neurobasis chinensis). Photo: Saurabh Sawant  A male damselfly perches on a rock by a stream in the Western Ghats. Cover Photo: Saurabh Sawant

There are over 6,000 species of Odonata on the planet, and most of them depend on freshwater habitats. India has over 500 species, with the greatest diversity in the Western Ghats and Northeast India. This jewel of a damselfly is a male stream glory (Neurobasis chinensis). Photo: Saurabh Sawant
A male damselfly perches on a rock by a stream in the Western Ghats. Cover Photo: Saurabh Sawant

Dragonflies and damselflies have lots in common, and a few notable differences. The simplest way to identify them is to take notice of the insect’s resting position: The wings of a dragonfly (left) rest perpendicular to the body, like an airplane, while damselflies (right) fold their wings together at rest. Damselflies also have thinner bodies than dragonflies. The odonate on the top is the crimson-tailed marsh hawk (Orthetrum pruinosum) from Gudalur, Tamil Nadu. Photos: Samuel John.

Dragonflies and damselflies have lots in common, and a few notable differences. The simplest way to identify them is to take notice of the insect’s resting position: The wings of a dragonfly (left) rest perpendicular to the body, like an airplane, while damselflies (right) fold their wings together at rest. Damselflies also have thinner bodies than dragonflies. The odonate on the top is the crimson-tailed marsh hawk (Orthetrum pruinosum) from Gudalur, Tamil Nadu. Photos: Samuel John.

Get a little closer and you will notice another difference between the two species: their eyes. Both have compound vision, though damselflies like the clear-winged forest glory (right), have space between their eyes, while dragonflies (left) do not.  Photos: (Right) Saurabh Sawant (left) Samuel  John

Get a little closer and you will notice another difference between the two species: their eyes. Both have compound vision, though damselflies like the clear-winged forest glory (right), have space between their eyes, while dragonflies (left) do not. Photos: (Right) Saurabh Sawant (left) Samuel John

We think of both species as delicate insects with gossamer wings, but this avatar is only the last stage in the life-cycle of an odonate. Both damsel and dragonflies begin their lives in eggs, then hatch into larvae, and evolve into the wingless nymph stage, when they eat voraciously and moult a number of times. This is an image of two damselflies mating a few feet from a flowing stream in Devala, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Samuel John

We think of both species as delicate insects with gossamer wings, but this avatar is only the last stage in the life-cycle of an odonate. Both damsel and dragonflies begin their lives in eggs, then hatch into larvae, and evolve into the wingless nymph stage, when they eat voraciously and moult a number of times. This is an image of two damselflies mating a few feet from a flowing stream in Devala, Tamil Nadu. Photo: Samuel John

The nymph stage of an odonate’s life ends with it emerging from its nymph body via a final moult (in picture), which usually occurs at dusk or dawn. When it’s over, they emerge as immature adults with gossamer wings, but barely any colour. Colour will develop over the course of the odonate’s life, assuming it isn’t eaten by a bird or frog. Photo: Samuel John

The nymph stage of an odonate’s life ends with it emerging from its nymph body via a final moult (in picture), which usually occurs at dusk or dawn. When it’s over, they emerge as immature adults with gossamer wings, but barely any colour. Colour will develop over the course of the odonate’s life, assuming it isn’t eaten by a bird or frog. Photo: Samuel John

Odonates are skilled predators at nearly every stage of their lives. As larvae, they consume tadpoles, small fish, even newborn adults of their own species. Later, as adults, like this Nilgiri torrentdart (Euphaea dispar), they feed on mosquitoes, blackflies, and midges, and play the critical role in keeping insect populations in check. Photo: Saurabh Sawant

Odonates are skilled predators at nearly every stage of their lives. As larvae, they consume tadpoles, small fish, even newborn adults of their own species. Later, as adults, like this Nilgiri torrentdart (Euphaea dispar), they feed on mosquitoes, blackflies, and midges, and play the critical role in keeping insect populations in check. Photo: Saurabh Sawant

Odonates are what scientists call bioindicators: species that signify the health and harmony of their ecosystem. For instance, dragonflies like this stunning fulvous forest skimmer (Neurothemis fulvia), need clean freshwater to develop in its larval stage. As it grows older, the skimmer requires a steady diet of insects for nutrition. By their presence, we can surmise that an ecosystem has some freshwater and a diversity of insects. Photo: Saurabh Sawant

Odonates are what scientists call bioindicators: species that signify the health and harmony of their ecosystem. For instance, dragonflies like this stunning fulvous forest skimmer (Neurothemis fulvia), need clean freshwater to develop in its larval stage. As it grows older, the skimmer requires a steady diet of insects for nutrition. By their presence, we can surmise that an ecosystem has some freshwater and a diversity of insects. Photo: Saurabh Sawant

The Western Ghats is home to a number of species that are endemic to the region’s lush forests and wetlands. Among them is the Indian blue bambootail (right), identified by its striking azure tail, and the Nilgiri torrent dart (left). Photos: MV Shreeram (right): Saurabh Sawant (left)

Odonates are resilient creatures that have survived millennia on this planet, but these little fighters are feeling the effects of climate change and habitat loss. Studies have shown that dragonflies like this pied paddy skimmer, are quite sensitive to changes in temperature. A number of species have moved to higher altitudes as global weather patterns change, leading to overlapping of territories and breeding between species. It remains to be seen how they will fare. Photo: Samuel John

Odonates are resilient creatures that have survived millennia on this planet, but these little fighters are feeling the effects of climate change and habitat loss. Studies have shown that dragonflies like this pied paddy skimmer, are quite sensitive to changes in temperature. A number of species have moved to higher altitudes as global weather patterns change, leading to overlapping of territories and breeding between species. It remains to be seen how they will fare. Photo: Samuel John

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