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The Book

DRAGONFLY: What an Insect Tells Us about Sex, Evolution and the Human Condition


By Bryan Pfeiffer

At dawn in June, a bog in northern Vermont is a theater of vernal desire. Arethusa orchids bloom like little purple flames scattered across the spongy carpet of sedge and moss. A male green frog calls out a comical gunk and waits to seize a female in a firm mating embrace. Golden-crowned kinglets, songbirds in a frenzy of courtship, repeat short sweet notes and send bolts of energy to their crowns, which erupt in flashes of orange and yellow feathers. It is all a prelude to the morning’s next event: an uprising of dragonflies.

In the warming sunshine, hundreds of dragonfly larvae, or nymphs, begin to emerge from the bog mat like cicadas from earth or (at the risk of insulting an insect) like zombies from a cemetery. Each ascends a few inches up its own stalk of vegetation. And in synchronized coming-out party, each will crack open its outer casing and emerge as a fully formed adult dragonfly, a chalk-fronted corporal in this case, named for the two parallel white bars atop its thorax.

Another dragonfly species, a common green darner, lime green and cobalt blue, already patrolling the bog, snatches one of the corporals from its maiden flight and dispatches the insect with a bite to the head. Breakfast.

Off in a corner, a male ebony boghaunter, black with big emerald eyes, grabs one of it own, a female, but not for breakfast. The pair begins to copulate in flight, a bout of aerial acrobatics unique among insects, a pose that might have inspired authors of the Kama Sutra – or might have caused them to blush.

Pick a scene from the drama of life on Earth: birth, consciousness, survival, reproduction, death. Dragonflies play all the leading roles. These charismatic insects have stories of their own. Yet they illuminate the human story as well. This book about the natural history of dragonflies and the people who chase them will also be a reflection on evolution and what these insects tell us about ourselves.

Grounded in fresh scientific research and raw human fascination, the book will guide readers through general topics in nature and natural science with an emphasis on biology’s essential discipline, evolution. In their audacious lives, dragonflies put within our grasp many of evolution’s fundamental themes: diversity, heredity, variation, adaptation, fitness and, most importantly, natural selection. Dragonflies emerge, mature, hunt, eat, mate, reproduce and die in rivers, lakes, wetlands and other watery places not far from our own backyards. They live in Technicolor, brighter and more energetic than many other animals. And like any good drama, their lives offer insights into our lives.

In our universal fascination with the intersection of nature and flight, birds get most of the attention. They turn us toward sky and swamp, forest and fen. They offer grace, elegance, flight and music. Quite often we see them as virtuous, most deserving of our sympathies. Birds are the angels among wildlife.

Dragonflies are feral angels. They eat mosquitoes and eat one another. They have sex in flight, joined in the shape of a heart, and their sex is rough and ruthless. They are held in Asia as symbols of courage and in the United States as agents of the devil. They have no propensity to bite us, but a few species, given the opportunity, might consider laying an egg or two in your thigh. Dragonflies are birds with attitude.

Few self-respecting biologists would say this publicly, but these insects exhibit a certain “personality” as they go about their lives, mostly killing other insects and having sex. Dragonflies can appear to us cautious or bold, aggressive or placid, enterprising or lazy. It is as if some kind of intrinsic wisdom has evolved in an insect around in one form or another for 300 millions years, 1500-times longer than humans have roamed the planet. So in our discovering more about them, dragonflies can teach us more about wildlife, more about the outdoors, more about our place in nature and therefore more about the human condition.

At dawn in June, a bog in northern Vermont is a theater of vernal desire. Arethusa orchids bloom like little purple flames scattered across the spongy carpet of sedge and moss. A male green frog calls out a comical gunk and waits to seize a female in a firm mating embrace. Golden-crowned kinglets, songbirds in a frenzy of courtship, repeat short sweet notes and send bolts of energy to their crowns, which erupt in flashes of orange and yellow feathers. It is all a prelude to the morning’s next event: an uprising of dragonflies.

In the warming sunshine, hundreds of dragonfly larvae, or nymphs, begin to emerge from the bog mat like cicadas from earth or (at the risk of insulting an insect) like zombies from a cemetery. Each ascends a few inches up its own stalk of vegetation. And in synchronized coming-out party, each will crack open its outer casing and emerge as a fully formed adult dragonfly, a chalk-fronted corporal in this case, named for the two parallel white bars atop its thorax.

Another dragonfly species, a common green darner, lime green and cobalt blue, already patrolling the bog, snatches one of the corporals from its maiden flight and dispatches the insect with a bite to the head. Breakfast.

Off in a corner, a male ebony boghaunter, black with big emerald eyes, grabs one of it own, a female, but not for breakfast. The pair begins to copulate in flight, a bout of aerial acrobatics unique among insects, a pose that might have inspired authors of the Kama Sutra – or might have caused them to blush.

Pick a scene from the drama of life on Earth: birth, consciousness, survival, reproduction, death. Dragonflies play all the leading roles. These charismatic insects have stories of their own. Yet they illuminate the human story as well. This book about the natural history of dragonflies and the people who chase them will also be a reflection on evolution and what these insects tell us about ourselves.

Grounded in fresh scientific research and raw human fascination, the book will guide readers through general topics in nature and natural science with an emphasis on biology’s essential discipline, evolution. In their audacious lives, dragonflies put within our grasp many of evolution’s fundamental themes: diversity, heredity, variation, adaptation, fitness and, most importantly, natural selection. Dragonflies emerge, mature, hunt, eat, mate, reproduce and die in rivers, lakes, wetlands and other watery places not far from our own backyards. They live in Technicolor, brighter and more energetic than many other animals. And like any good drama, their lives offer insights into our lives.

In our universal fascination with the intersection of nature and flight, birds get most of the attention. They turn us toward sky and swamp, forest and fen. They offer grace, elegance, flight and music. Quite often we see them as virtuous, most deserving of our sympathies. Birds are the angels among wildlife.

Dragonflies are feral angels. They eat mosquitoes and eat one another. They have sex in flight, joined in the shape of a heart, and their sex is rough and ruthless. They are held in Asia as symbols of courage and in the United States as agents of the devil. They have no propensity to bite us, but a few species, given the opportunity, might consider laying an egg or two in your thigh. Dragonflies are birds with attitude.