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When beliefs are shattered

March 21, 2013

I love nature. The laws and rules that govern it provide structure to the world in which I live. Take my Rule 3–Gravity for example. If I release something it will fall. It never fails.

Wandering Ringtails

Wandering Ringtails

My Rule 649–Dragonflies and Damselflies says one of the differentiating features between dragonflies and damselflies is that dragonflies rest with their wings flat (open) and damselflies rest with their closed, as shown by the  Wandering Ringtails (Austrolestes leda) pictured left. This is a natural law I have always believed, and of course have catalogued and given a number. But sitting on the edge of the King Parrot Creek at dusk last week waiting for the elusive platypus to appear, I noticed an insect resting on a branch with its wings flat.

Bronze Needle

Bronze Needle

Obviously my first thoughts were, ‘It’s a dragonfly’. However further investigation revealed it to be a Bronze Needle Damselfly (Synlestes weyersii), a species that inhabits rocky stream margins. The female (pictured right, lower) is distinguished from the male (upper) by its shorter and relatively thicker abdomen. Part of the Megapodagrionidae family, all these damselflies are known as ‘Flat-wings’ because of the habit of resting with the wings open … a whole group of insects challenging life as I know it.

So there goes Rule 649. Shattered. If the sun does not come up tomorrow (opposite of my Rule 5–Day-follows-night) I won’t be surprised.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2013 1:48 pm

    Great story … I share your pain! But it is more painful than you think – recently I came across a tiny dragonfly that holds it wings closed, the Common Shutwing (Cordulephya pygmaea) – it is apparently only seen in Autumn but fairly common (flying now in fact): (NB. NatureShare is best viewed in Firefox, Chrome or Safari, not Microsoft Internet Explorer)

    Rather than a rule, wings being held open or closed is in fact a ‘rule of thumb’. A rule of thumb is nicely defined by Wikipedia as “A rule of thumb is a principle with broad application that is not intended to be strictly accurate or reliable for every situation. It is an easily learned and easily applied procedure for making some determination.” A bit like a ‘non-core’ rule. A good example of a rule of thumb we were all taught at school is ‘i before e except after c’ (as in receive). As it happens this rule has now been dropped by most educators because there are more breaches of the rule than there are examples of the rule working; ie. it is a very inefficient rule of thumb!

    So there are breaches of the dragonfly-damselfly rule of thumb on both sides – most breaches occur for damselflies (there are quite a few that break the rule and hold their wings open), whereas I think there is only one family with one genus of dragonfly in Australia with wings held closed (Cordulephya – and only the abovementioned species occurs in Vic – I think). Despite this, the rule of thumb does work much more often than not so it isn’t too bad (as a rule of thumb).

    As it happens there is another rule of thumb that works better for damselflies vs dragonflies. It’s the eyes. In one respect this isn’t as good as a ‘rule of thumb’ because it is harder to see with the naked eye (in comparison to wings held open of closed) but I can only ID these creatures from a photo and the eyes are easily seen from photos.

    So how does the ‘eyes rule of thumb’ work? All damselflies have a large gap between the eyes (they are held a bit like a hammerhead shark). Dragonflies have eyes that are touching (or nearly so). But, of course, being a rule of thumb there are exceptions. The exceptions though are only the family Gomphidae, which are dragonflies with an obvious gap between the eyes. However, with Gomphidae species, the eyes generally aren’t separated as much as damselflies, they are medium-large dragonflies and they are quite distinctive in their own right (whenever I’ve seen a Gomphidae species it has been obvious they are dragonflies and not damselflies).

    The good thing is at least one part of this ‘eyes rule of thumb’ is absolute – here is how to apply it:
    1. Eyes touching or nearly so = always a dragonfly
    2. Obvious gap between eyes = damselfly, or a dragonfly in the Gomphidae family

    Finally, is there an actual ‘rule’ that works for dragonflies vs damselflies? The answer is yes. Taxonomically speaking all dragonflies and damselflies form the insect order called Odonata (Order: Odonata). Confusingly the common name for the order Odonata is ‘dragonflies’ (noting that it contains damselflies too). The order Odonata comprises two sub-orders: 1) damselflies (sub-order Zygoptera); 2) dragonflies (sub-order Anisoptera – sometimes called ‘dragonflies proper’). According to Theischinger and Hawking (Dragonflies of Australia) damselflies and dragonflies can be separated by wing venation, thus:
    1. Damselflies – Discoidal cell is a simple quadrilateral (sometimes traversed by crossveins, occasionally open at base).
    2. Dragonflies – Discoidal cell is divided into a hypertriangle and triangle (often differing in shape in fore- and hindwing, and often traversed by crossveins).

    Here are all the damselfly and dragonfly species we’ve found (so far) in Riddells Creek:
    Using this list, the wing venation isn’t always easily visible but you’ll be surprised how many times you can see it. (NB. once in a specific observation in NatureShare – click on the largest square beneath a photo to see the photo in its largest resolution).

    We’ve just started a local blog and I will put up a link to your story and add pics to this response to aid the wing venation ‘rule’ and ‘eyes rule of thumb’.

    Again, thanks for your story.

  2. April 18, 2013 2:11 pm

    Here is the above comment with pictures …

    • April 22, 2013 2:26 pm


      Thanks for adding a bit (actually, a lot) of science to the story. It has been fascinating and a welcome addition to our blog


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