More charismatic megafauna

Although this blog is mostly devoted to tiny, obscure insects, once in a while I encounter something big and conspicuous that seems worth sharing. And so today I find myself writing a second consecutive post without any leafminers in it—though it was in search of an elusive leafminer of false hellebore (Veratrum viride) that I wandered over to the edge of a small brook this morning. There, perched atop a skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) leaf, I spotted this dragonfly naiad:

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After checking that it wasn’t just an empty skin, I decided to hang around for a minute and see if the adult started to emerge. Sure enough, one minute later I saw something bulging from the middle of its thorax.

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Although my camera battery was nearly dead when I arrived, it managed to hang on throughout the ensuing spectacle, so you can now witness it in a fraction of the time, and with none of the accompanying mosquitoes.

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Fifty-one minutes had now gone by. During that time, I was keeping an eye on its neighbor, who looked like this when I arrived:

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Thirty-seven minutes in:

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At forty-five minutes, its wings suddenly popped open:

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And five minutes later, it flew away, leaving its exuviae still clinging to the leaf:

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I didn’t feel the need to hang around for another hour to see the first one through to this point. Not far away, I found another that was still perched atop its exuviae but had finished getting “colored in”:

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Today was evidently the day for these to emerge; there were numerous others along a short stretch of the brook. Here’s one more:

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I’m not sure exactly what these are, beyond “some kind of clubtail” (Gomphidae). I think identifying these to species often requires a close look at the tip of the abdomen, and this may or may not cut it:

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Edit: Ben Coulter and Dave Small concur that these are Southern Pygmy Clubtails (Lanthus vernalis).

About Charley Eiseman

I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.
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19 Responses to More charismatic megafauna

  1. Judy says:

    Wow! This is amazing! I had no idea–thanks for teaching me something new again!

  2. Ben Coulter says:

    Lanthus vernalis. Southern Pygmy Clubtail.

  3. Virginia S Dyson says:

    I’m seldom in just the right spot at just the right time but when it happens I feel as though I’ve been handed a gift! Thanks for braving the mosquitoes to share this!

  4. Cindy says:

    I’m never that excited to see a post from you in my email. Bugs. Eh. But then I open it and Wow! Always a treat and completely fascinating!!! When will I learn. Lol.

    Do you think something comes from the tail to expand the wings? Maybe not directly, but food to support the processes?

    • The dragonfly was bobbing or rocking slightly as its wings were expanding, and I assume that motion helps with pumping the hemolymph where it needs to go, but I don’t know that it comes from the tail.

  5. irisclearwater says:

    So appreciating your love of life, and your generosity in sharing it with us. I feel so lucky to have met you and to receive your blog. Thank you for sharing this miracle with us so beautifully!!

  6. Patricia says:

    Beautiful! If you post on iNaturalist.org, someone will Id. There’s a very good Odonata team on there.

  7. Truly amazing! You were definitely in the right place at the right time. Shades of Alien!

  8. Linda G. says:

    What an exquisite series of photographs! Yesterday at the edge of a pond I picked up two empty dragonfly exuvia — amazed, as always, at how such a large insect can emerge from such a small package. Some kind of miracle! Thank you so much, Charley!

  9. Every time I see an exuvia I notice these while filaments protruding and still attached to it. My understanding is that those filaments are actually parts of the breathing apparatus of the larva stage. But I still unclear about the whole process. What is it exactly – why it breaks apart when the insect emerges – what is it being replaced with for breathing, etc. Can you explain? We see it very well on your great photos.

    • Yes, they are tracheal tubes, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge!

    • eub says:

      I’ve read that the white threads are a cast of the tracheal tubes, a positive image of what now become the hollow spaces. But I have never read an explanation of why the pre-emergence tracheal tubes are filled like that. Possibly is the mechanism by which the negative space is created during development?

      Or possibly it is involved with how the naiad breathes in air, if the spiracles are used during this time? This “water animal in out of water” phase seems a tough respiratory engineering problem!

      (The naiad in water breathes by pumping water in and out of its anus over its gills. If you ever are in need of a more obscure epithet beyond “mouth-breather”.)

      • eub says:

        Theory: these threads function as “plugs” that can be pulled out so the tubes are ready for air. I think they must be made of strong stretchy material so that under a pull it necks down and leaves space for air to infiltrate so you’re not fighting a vacuum.

        Why is this helpful? Well, the alternatives I see are 1) the tubes form fully expanded and choked with lymph that has to be coughed out before you can breathe, and 2) the tubes form collapsed and have to be expanded. Our lungs take route (2) but it’s not easy to fight the surface tension of the moist walls — creating so much air-water interface area takes energy input. We use surfactant to reduce that but we also have a substantial diaphragm muscle that can create pressure to pull air in. My guess is that insects’ abdomen pumping cannot create as much pressure as we can, and that means they can’t afford to start life with collapsed breathing apparatus.

  10. Sara Kathleen Moore says:

    Thank you for posting your amazing encounter!

  11. Erin Hilley says:

    Beautiful and educational photos. I am assuming that you are hand holding the camera for these shots – is this correct? Thanks for letting us in on this wonder of nature photo series!

  12. eub says:

    These are amazing to watch! I had no idea the wings expand so much, I imagined they were packed in like a parachute.

    • Roxanne says:

      Wow, that would have been fantastic to watch. Thanks for sharing 🙂 I appreciated learning what the white filaments were too in the comments. They look like they were a draw string for a sleeping bag so it could zip itself back in!!

  13. Moni says:

    Fabulous photos! Thanks for sharing!!
    Not something I have had the pleasure to witness….yet!!hopefully!! 🙂

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