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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Dragonfly Dating

Air Date: Week of August 23, 2002

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Commentator Sy Montgomery explains the facts of life… from a dragonfly’s point of view.

Transcript

CURWOOD: At this time of year, dragonflies get into their own special version of gymnastics. Sy Montgomery comments on love, dragonfly style.

MONTGOMERY: If you spend any time near a pond this summer, you’re bound to witness a sex act so strange that you’ll forget to blush. Dragonfly love takes a chapter from the insect Kama Sutra. It’s an act so athletic that few people realize what they’re witnessing. When dragonflies are mating they form a heart shape with their two bodies, like a flying valentine. They’ve come up with an admirable solution to an anatomical quandary. A male dragonfly has clasping organs at his tail end, and these fit into grooves in back of the female’s head. When he finds a female he flies above and slightly behind her. If she’s receptive she allows him to fasten his claspers while the two fly united.

All this is great except for one problem. Now his tail end, where his sex organs are, is inconveniently occupied with her forward parts. Happily, the male dragonfly planned for this. Before their first date, he has swung his sex organs up toward a special pouch in his abdomen, right in back of his legs, and loaded it with sperm. So, while the male’s tail is stuck in her neck, the female can, if she so chooses, loop her own abdomen up, touch her tail end to her mate’s pouch, and fertilize her own eggs.

Much of the dragonfly action you’ll see this summer is related to sex. Male dragonflies stake out territories to which they hope to attract mates. So if you go to the same place you’ll likely meet the same individuals day after day. Watch for their spiraling combat: rival males chase one another in circles, all the while, losing altitude. They spiral downward till the intruder leaves or they fight. And they fight much like they hunt. They grab their rivals with hairy legs and then, in mid-air, bite with formidable jaws. But male dragonflies save fighting as a last resort. They prefer to dangle, flutter and flash their colorful spots and iridescent patches at one another in ritualized displays.
And that’s a wise strategy: few victims of a dragonfly’s attack survive and they seldom miss their mark. After all, their eyes are huge, occupying three-quarters of the dragonfly’s face. Up to 28,000 individual lenses occupy each eye.

In prehistoric times dragonflies flew on wings as large as those of seagulls. Good thing for us they’re smaller now. But their grace, speed and ferocity remind us that size is no measure of complexity and that life, as well as love, can take on forms more strange and more wonderful than anything we humans could imagine.

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CURWOOD: Sy Montgomery is the author of The Curious Naturalist: Nature’s Everyday Mysteries.

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CURWOOD: You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

 

 

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