Dragonfly Morning

 

lake-darner-dragonfly-eating-yellow-jacket_595

Dragonfly eating a yellow jacket. (C) Bob Armstrong

 

The low morning sun breaks just over the distant trees. A direct sunbeam reaches the clearing below at the water’s edge. The air buzzes with creatures aflight, fresh sunshine glinting off lacy wings. I amble around the serene morning landscape. It is late spring. It is the morning of the dragonfly.

Days ago I watched these creatures emerge from the depths. Standing ankle-deep in a shallow stream, I crouched over a sunny rock. A nymphal dragonfly, mottled and brown to blend in with streambed gravels, crawled out of its watery home to the land above the surface. Stocky and strong, the size of a quarter, the nymph is the tank of the littoral zone. For months—even for years—the dragonfly nymph has patrolled the waters of its home. A voracious predator, it will seize any prey nearby into its strong maxillae. Powerfully the nymph shoots through the running stream with a water jet through its anus. Bloodworms are common prey, mosquito larvae too. Even tadpoles and minnows cannot escape the appetite of the mighty dragonfly nymph.

As of yet the nymph has known nothing of the land above the surface. Water has been its domain since it was an egg. Yet the dragonfly nymph is drawn by the biological imperative to crawl beyond. Out of the deep they will come, en masse in spring, then steadily during the summer. Squatting down, I watch the next generation of dragonflies emerge from the deep. Sunlight glints off the nymph’s still wet body; in a matter of minutes it will dry off completely. Pausing on a flat rock, the nymph looks dead and desiccated. Still, the nymph is fully alive; it soon reanimates, crawling onward towards its destination of the high brush.

Having completed its arduous landward journey, the dragonfly nymph clutches an emergent piece of grass. From here the nymphal stage has moved its last. The exoskeleton dries out even more. The nymph has died to the watery world, becoming nothing more than a mere mummified remnant. But inside the journey continues. Slowly, a weak suture line opens up along the back of the neck. The alien within the husk starts emerging. First the back bows out. Then the head pulls free. The creature arches its back, pulling out its legs one by one. One more arch of the thorax and the creature’s long abdomen is pulled from the husk of the nymph. Bright green and soft, the newly emerged dragonfly is exposed and vulnerable. Resting on top of its former exoskeleton, the dragonfly slowly hardens. The maverick of the air expands its wings for the first time in anticipation of flight. Hours later, the dragonfly is ready. It now joins the aerial display of other dragonflies humming above the disused nymphal exoskeletons still clinging to the bulrushes.

This morning I stand in amazement at the show before me. Hundreds of adult dragonflies going about dragonfly business. It is a harried, frenetic existence they live. The life in the air lasts but a few weeks, and much must be accomplished. Territory must be defended. Meals must be had. Mates must be found. Dragonfly business fills the morning stillness with an audible buzz. As in the water they are in the air—apex predators of the insect world. With voracious appetites they consume up to one-fifth their body mass in insects per day. Agile acrobats of the air, flying effortlessly in six directions—left, right, forward, backward, up, down. No insect prey stands a chance. The dragonfly’s keen compound eyes detect a world open to predation. Jerking forth in mid-air, the dragonfly snatches a housefly. It is time for a meal.

I crouch down to where the dragonfly has just landed on a narrow branch. It doesn’t seem to notice its inquisitive observer. Instead it’s just busy consuming its meal. The hapless fly is clasped in the dragonfly’s maxillae, its mandibles pull off the wings. The dragonfly then uses its rugged labrum to grind down the housefly into small pieces. Rotating the housefly around with its mandibles, the dragonfly’s meal resembles an apple being eaten. Minutes later, all evidence of the housefly’s existence is vanished—it has been integrated into the pulsating body of the dragonfly.

With a sudden jerk, the dragonfly launches itself in the air. It starts off as quickly as it had stopped. The dragonfly rejoins the hovering mass in the morning light, searching for its next meal. I watch in fascination; I can’t go on just yet. Though the dragonflies share in my presence, they remain indifferent. The spring generation has reached maturity and have bigger issues on their minds. Soon they will mate and lay their eggs back along the water’s edge where days ago they emerged. The spring influx of dragonflies will then dwindle. The aerial beasts will die and disappear. But the eggs have been laid and the mission completed. A year from now there will be more dragonfly mornings to come.

 

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Posted on June 22, 2016, in Nature and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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