Many people see a large, brightly colored insect darting around a pond or lake and automatically think “That’s a dragonfly”. But that “dragonfly” may actually be a different type of insect called a “damselfly”. If you wonder what makes dragonflies and damselflies different insects, this post will help.
Damselflies are smaller, slimmer and slower insects than dragonflies, with wings the same size and shape. Because of their differences, damselflies and dragonflies are classified separately within Order Odonata; dragonflies in Suborder Anisoptera and damselflies in Suborder Zygoptera.
While the differences can be subtle, understanding them can help you enjoy watching these insects as they go about their daily lives. Here are more details about how these two types of insects differ.
Damselflies are the dragonflies’ more delicate cousins
At first glance, dragonflies and damselflies look very similar, which is to be expected from creatures classified within the same Order. Both insects have long, thin bodies. But when compared side by side, you can see that the damselfly is much more lightly built than the dragonfly. A damselfly is slimmer and more delicate looking than the dragonfly.
Dragonflies and damselflies also have different body proportions. Since both are insects, their bodies are made up of three distinct sections – head, thorax and abdomen. The segments are roughly cylindrical and the abdomen is much longer than it is wide.
However, a dragonfly’s body length is more evenly divided between the thorax and abdomen than a damselfly’s. A damselfly’s body length is almost all abdomen, giving it a distinctive look. Even club-tail dragonflies don’t match the damselfly’s proportions, despite having longer abdomens than many other dragonfly species.
However, a longer abdomen does not mean that a damselfly will be longer than a dragonfly in total. Here is a comparison of the average lengths of these two types of insects:
|Size||0.7 – 4.7 inches (18 – 120 mm)||1 – 2.4 inches (25 – 62 mm)|
Because damselflies appear more delicate than dragonflies, people sometimes mistake damselflies for female dragonflies, especially because the word “damsel” refers to a woman in American English. It’s a natural assumption but inaccurate. The body shape helps identify the type of insect, not its sex. Males and females of both dragonflies and damselflies display the body shape and size characteristic of their Suborder.
They hold their wings differently at rest
Dragonflies and damselflies have four wings but position them differently when perched. This is a major difference between the two types of Odonate insect and one of the fastest ways to determine if you are observing a dragonfly or a damselfly.
At rest, dragonflies spread all four wings horizontally straight out from their bodies. This gives them a distinctive and famous silhouette. By contrast, damselflies close their wings and hold them vertically above their backs. They become somewhat less obvious to predators in this position, especially when perched length-wise along a plant stem.
A partial exception to this distinctive wing positioning is the damselfly Family Lestidae. Also known as “spread-winged damselflies”, the species within this family hold their wings partly spread out over the body instead of tightly closed on the vertical. Nevertheless, a spread-winged damselfly will still look slimmer overall than a dragonfly.
They have different wing shapes
Dragonfly wings are shaped differently than those of their damselfly cousins. If you were to compare the two insects, you would notice that all four dragonfly wings are broader from base to tip. This allows the dragonfly to generate greater power and lift than the damselfly can create with its narrower wings.
Additionally, all four damselfly wings are about the same size. Not so for dragonflies; their hind wings are bigger than their fore wings. This is actually the basis for the Suborder name; Anisoptera means “unlike wings”. (Paulson 2012)
Dragonflies beat their wings differently than damselflies
Both insects have powerful wing muscles, beat their wings about 35 times per second and fly in an “antiphase” pattern, meaning the wing pairs beat independently from each other. (Imes 1992) However, another fascinating difference between these two insect Suborders is that they coordinate the timing of their wing movement differently.
Damselflies beat their front and back wings in an alternating pattern; when one set is stroking up, the other set is stroking down. Dragonflies time their wing beats with an offset of about 25%. This means that when the front pair of wings begins a down stroke, the hind pair moves when the front wings are about a fourth of the way through the range of motion. (Thorp and Rogers 2014)
Dragonflies fly faster than damselflies
The differences in body size, wing design and flight mechanics all contribute to different top flight speeds for these insects.
Some members of Order Odonata can zoom around at about 35 miles per hour (56 kilometers per hour) and all species are incredibly agile in the air – able to turn on a dime, stop abruptly and even hover.
But overall, damselflies just aren’t as fast as dragonflies; the fastest damselflies can manage speeds equivalent to the slowest dragonflies but would lose a flat out race with any of the faster ones.
Dragonflies and damselflies have different faces
Another major defining characteristic between these insects is the spacing and size of their eyes.
Damselfly eyes are large, widely spaced on either sides of the head, and never touch. Sometimes the top and bottom halves of each eye are different colors. Dragonfly eyes are bigger overall, more bulbous and take up so much space that the margins meet, usually at the center of the head. They also tend to be a single color.
They eat different prey
Dragonflies are big, strong and fast. They will target insects that are nearly as large as they are, and because they are so large, most flying insects are small enough to be considered prey. In fact, dragonflies are so powerful, they hunt butterflies, their damselfly cousins and even other dragonflies.
In contrast, damselflies target smaller prey. This difference is apparent in their respective common names. The comparatively smaller and more delicate Zygopterans are referred to as “damselflies” while the Anisopterans are granted the word “dragon” in their common name, which implies their more formidable abilities. (Arnett and Jacques Jr. 1981)
There are more dragonfly species than damselfly species
Here is a comparison of the different numbers of species within each of the Suborders:
|Number of species (approximate)||Suborder Anisoptera|
In nature, the only measuring stick is how well a species survives and reproduces. Both damselflies and dragonflies are superbly adapted to the demands of their respective niches and their abilities have been honed across millions of years of evolution. All members of Order Odonata are fast, agile, and extremely effective predators. At the end of the day, both damselflies and dragonflies stand on their own merits.
Related Now I Wonder Posts
For more about dragonflies, check out these other Now I Wonder posts:
For information about insects in general, check out these other Now I Wonder posts:
- Do insects ever eat spiders? Part 1: Attacks from the air
- Do insects ever eat spiders? Part 2: Attacks from the ground
- Do insects have blood?
Abbott, John C.. 2011. Damselflies of Texas : A Field Guide. Austin: University of Texas Press. Accessed April 12, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Abbott, JC. 2009. Encyclopedia of Inland Waters. Elsevier Inc. 2009
Arnett, Ross H., and Jacques Jr, R.L. Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Insects. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1981.
Imes, Rick. 1992. The Practical Entomologist. London: Quarto Publishing.
Paulson, Dennis. 2012. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Accessed April 12, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Thorp, James H., and Rogers, D. Christopher, eds. 2014. Thorp and Covich’s Freshwater Invertebrates : Ecology and General Biology. Saint Louis: Elsevier Science & Technology. Accessed April 13, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Thorp, James H, Rogers, D Christopher. 2011. Field Guide to Freshwater Invertebrates of North America. Academic Press. 2011