Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 10, 2011

A Story to be Re-told

Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator) - egg laying. Copyright 2006 Ross Gardner

There are some stories that you just never get tired of telling.  Tales of nature that always maintain that sense of fascination as much as the day you heard them for the first time yourself.  The multitudes of  short stories of the natural world that are enacted every day and anywhere that human doings allow them the space to do so.

A personal favourite for me, has to be tale of the dragonfly, from egg to adult.  Running a nature study centre, as I have the good fortune to do, I am able to recall this transformation many times each year to the school children that visit.  No doubt it is a story some reading this will also know well, but everytime I tell it, I still find it quite amazing.  For those less familiar, it begins with a very tiny egg, laid, by most species of dragonfly and damselfly (the Odonata) among the aquatic vegetation.  A very tiny egg produces a very tiny nymph and so starts the devolpment of a voracious and wonderfully evolved predator, as both nymph and adult.

I have been doing a fair bit of pond dipping at work lately.  The kids love it and for me, as I am only to happy to admit, it is something I’ve never grown out of.  It is often the children that reveal the presence of hitherto unrecorded species at the centre.  The first water stick-insects and water scorpion hauled up from the weedy depths had me trying hard to maintain a professional demeanour and attempting not to act more excited than kids were by the discoveries.  The worlds of water have never lost that sense of intrigue that drew me in as a child and the wonderment at the oddity and adaptation demanded from life in an aquatic environment is something that has increased with aged.

Emperor nymph (illuminated by flash). Copyright 2007 Ross Gardner.

Among the more surprising captures, the Odonata nymphs are a mainstay.  On a sunny day, the first thing the children see of the pondlife will be the sight of dragonflies darting above the water and the vivid colours of damseflies drifting over the lily-pads.  The brightly coloured blue and green Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator), Britain’s largest and a resident in the dipping pond, is a stunning insect, leaving an impression on any who see them up close.  Then to find a nymph no more than a few millimetres long swimming about in the dipping tray, is to stretch the imagination somewhat, as to how the one becomes the other.  The discovery a two year old, 4cm monster, lacking anything like the colours of its adult form, bearing those bulging eyes and double fanged, double-hinged lower lip, able to strike for prey with astonishing speed, does little to lessen the sense of incredulity.

Freshly emerged Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) and exuvia. Copyright 2011 Ross Gardner

It is such a joy to see the same sense of wonder mirrored in young eyes as I see with my own, as I describe the nymph ready to change (really, it has already changed – it just wants to get out!), crawling from the water up some emergent stem or leaf, clinging firmly and then proceeding to split the skin behind its head, and dragging itself from its larval skin.  This could take an hour or so and the emerged dragonfly looks a far cry from the beauty it will soon become.  They look pallid, almost ghostly, hanging over the night-time pond.  They need time to pump their fluids around their body, to expand and harden their still stunted and delicate wings.  I probably ought to include another plug for my book ‘Never a dull moment’, in which I recount my witnessing all of this for myself on year, which the garden pond taken over by Emperor nymphs.

It is a fantastic story.  Especially good for relating to children, as so much of the life cycle may be simultaneously evident: the egg-laying females, the nymphs large and small and their moulted skins, the exuvia (the skin left after the final moult into to adulthood) left attached to emergent pond plants.  And yes, it is a story I never get tired of telling, as indeed I just have once again.

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