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Flying Phenoms

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Is there a more evocative symbol of the lazy, hazy days of summer than the dragonfly? Take the Blue Dasher, for example, which you can find in nearby Long Island. Residents and vacationers alike are no doubt hearing the soft whirr of dozens of dragonfly wings this very minute.


Dragonfly balances on a tiny branch.
A Blue Dasher photographed in Pennsylvania.
© M. Kainickara

But don’t let those whispering wings fool you: these insects are among the world’s fastest predators, and some of the most fearsome to boot. Darting over the surfaces of ponds, lakes, marshes, and streams, they can reach speeds of up to 30 miles an hour. They’re not just fast—dragonflies handle like a dream, too.

Using separate sets of muscles for their four wings, these hunters can hover in one place for as long as a minute at a time. They can also fly backward, turn upside down, and pivot 360°—maneuvering in ways human helicopter pilots can only envy. Dragonflies’ aerial skills are so well developed that mechanical engineers are looking to these animals for clues on how to design small drones.


Dorsal view of dragonfly specimen with wings fully extended.
A Blue Dasher specimen from the Museum’s collection.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

Fast and furious, dragonflies also have exceptional eyesight. They boast what’s thought to be the largest compound eyes of all insects—30,000 facets full of photoreceptors make it possible for them to see everywhere except directly behind them. 

Researchers have determined that dragonflies have the capacity to pick out individual prey—mosquitos, moths, and other flying insects—within a crowd. They also have a highly developed fovea, an area of the eye with such high resolution that it acts as built-in binoculars.

These attributes combine to give dragonflies a hunting success rate that puts most other predators to shame: they capture up to 95 percent of their prey!


A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.