Out and about: the mosquito hunter

The winged hunter was fast, accurate and relentless of his quarry. His maneuvers over the quiet marsh were impressive. Then, as suddenly as he flew by me, he paused in mid-air, hovered for a moment, turned 180 degrees and bolted back in the same direction he came from. The hunter was hungry. His prey was the many mosquitos that were buzzing around the wetlands. The predator was a dragonfly.

Dragonflies are insects, belonging to the order Odonata. They are true insects with six legs, and three body parts (head, thorax, and abdomen). They are double-winged, and have large, compound eyes. They live near water-ponds, lakes, marshes, rivers and streams. They start their life under water as a nymph, prowling the shallows for anything they can grab to eat. Depending on the species, they may spend up to three years underwater as a nymph. After metamorphosis, the adult may only live a few weeks to breed. Even under water they're fierce predators. Dragonflies in turn are eaten by birds, frogs, fish and even bats. Dragonflies get their name from the myth that they were once dragons. There were even legends that said if you slept outside you may be at risk of having your eyes sewn shut by these 'flying darning needles.'

Scientists have identified over 5000 species of dragonflies worldwide, with about 400 different species occurring in the U.S. They are also related to the smaller, slimmer damselflies. Dragonflies are ancient insects. They've been on earth for over 300 million years, looking very much the same as they did when they shared the planet with dinosaurs-with one exception, they're much smaller. The largest dragonfly fossil ever found had a wingspan of nearly three feet. On my recent visit to local pond I saw many different species of both dragonflies and damselflies. The male dragonflies were so busy chasing each other and defending their territories that it really didn't matter if I was in the way. Every once in a while, one of the determined hunters would clip me in the side of the head, arm or my camera lens, bounce off and keep flying. Just think, if these winged wonders were still three feet in size, they would have knocked me out if they flew into me!

Although people may fear dragonflies, they're harmless to humans. They do not bite or sting, but may fly around you or even land on you because they're curious. As the title describes, they're very beneficial, eating thousands of mosquitos, flies and bees. Their large, compound eyes allow them to see almost 360 degrees at all times. This excellent vision combined with flying speeds of up to 30 mph and their ability to hover and fly in any direction, makes them dangerous aerial hunters and real 'dragons' of the sky!

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