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 Major Groups | Insecta (insects) | Odonata (dragonflies, damselflies)

Odonata (dragonflies & damselflies)

The keys and description pages for Odonata families and genera are being successively updated to accomodate taxonomic changes. So you may find some odd quirks. The keys are being updated as the priority.

Major Group: Insecta
Order: Odonata
In Australia, the order Odonata is divided into two suborders, Zygoptera (damselflies) and Epiprocta (dragonflies), both have aquatic juvenile stages. As exopterygote insects (incomplete metamorphosis), there can be confusion as to whether juvenile dragonflies should be called nymphs or larvae. Tillyard (1917) decided that by definition larval structure differs significantly from adult form and therefore dragonflies are larvae because they do not exhibit the elongated abdomen that damselflies do. The larger and stouter dragonfly larvae, know as "mudeye", are often used by fishermen for bait and many fly-fishing lures are designed on the concept of adult damselflies and dragonflies.
(Epiprocta was formerly known as Epiproctophora and Anisoptera)

Descriptive Features:

  • head distinct
  • hinged labium extensible, folded back on itself and held beneath head, and may cover face anteroventrally
  • labial palps adapted for grasping
  • eyes compound
  • antennae long, simple
  • body segmentation distinct
  • 3 pairs of segmented legs on thorax
  • tarsi 2- or 3-segmented
  • wingless, or with wing pads
  • abdomen 11-segmented
  • Total length: 9.0 mm to 50.0 mm
  • Zygoptera (damselflies): abdomen ending with 3 long plate-like, triangular or saccoid caudal gills, median gill may be reduced
  • Epiprocta (dragonflies): abdomen ending with 3 short triangular caudal processes, forming an anal pyramid
  • Taxonomic Checklist:






    Distribution: Australia wide.

    Sensitivity Rating: SIGNAL grade 3

    Functional Feeding Group: predators

    Ecology: Instream habitat: Damselflies and dragonflies occur in flowing and standing waters including, streams, rivers, boggy seepages, trickles, waterfalls in splash zones, riverine pools, lakes, ponds, swamps and rock holes. Diversity and abundance is greatest in tropical and subtropical regions. Nymphs and larvae are found amongst submerged and emergent vegetation or on leaf packs on the substrata. They are clingers, sprawlers, burrowers, climbers, cryptic, hiders and crawlers.
    Feeding ecology: Both damselflies and dragonflies are carnivorous feeding upon insects, including other odonates, oligochaetes, chironomids, bugs, beetles, mayflies, rotifers, molluscs and small crustaceans. Larger dragonflies can prey upon tadpoles, small fish and crayfish. Many odonate species are aggressive attack predators (e.g. Aeshnidae: Anax papuensis), whilst others use stealth, patience and ambush to obtain their prey (e.g. Aeshnidae: Adveraeschna brevistyla). Species of Coenagrionidae: Coenagrion lyelli and Ischnura are known to guard their feeding areas, as increased feeding results in increased breeding ability.
    Habit: The odonate labium is an extensible, hinged feeding appendage. It can be rapidly extended by an increase in blood pressure, caused by contractions of abdominal and thoracic muscles, to harpoon the prey which is then grasped with modified labial palps. Most dragonfly larvae are able to propel themselves through the water by rapid expulsion of water through valves around the anus. This is useful for attack and defence. Austrocorduliidae: Austrocordulia refracta employs the unique tactic of feigning death when threatened.
    Life history: An adult odonate male will display territorial behaviour, constantly patrolling over the water’s surface to exclude other males from mating with prospective females, many of whom only go to the water to mate and lay eggs. Odonate adults mate in flight taking on a “wheel” position. Eggs are creamy-white turning to red-brown twenty four hours after fertilization. Most damselfly eggs are elongate, smooth and generally inserted into plant tissue. Most dragonfly eggs are ovoid to spherical, sculptured, gelatinous or with projections and usually scattered directly into the water. A one year life cycle is most common but may be shorter (two months) or longer (seven years). The life cycle generally includes nine to thirteen moults, but this varies widely between and within species depending on temperature, season and food supply. Metamorphosis begins in the last instar before ecdysis. Feeding ceases and the nymph or larva becomes the pharate adult (a composite of juvenile and adult) which then crawls up a plant stem, rock or log to leave the water prior to emergence. When the skin splits, the teneral adult (new adult with soft integument, dull colour and crumpled wings) emerges leaving behind the exuviae (empty shell) clinging to the plant, rock or log.
    Xanthagrion erythroneurum 

    copulation "wheel"

    Hemicordulia tau  



    early instar

    Ischnura heterosticta  

    late instar

    Ictinogomphus australis 


    Ictinogomphus australis 

    teneral adult

    Information Sources: Theischinger & Endersby 2009, Watson & O'Farrell 1991, Williams 1980, Theischinger 2000, Theischinger 2001, Theischinger 2002, Hawking & Theischinger 1999, Tillyard 1917, Ingram et al. 1997, Davis & Christidis 1997
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