July 2018

Dragons and Damsels

Hanah Hefner, MCCB Naturalist Technician

Odonata is the name of the Order that classifies dragonflies and damselflies together. The Order Odonata is a very diverse group of organisms and can be quite difficult to identify. Learning the broader groups of these insects starts a good track to narrowing down the name of a specific dragonfly or damselfly. All the damselfly and dragonfly photographs in this article were taken late June and early July 2018 at Marion County Park Lake, Knoxville, Iowa.

Here are some terms you may not be familiar with:

    • Odonata: the order of dragonflies and damselflies

    • Order: A level of biological classification

    • Abdomen: The end section of an insect

    • Thorax: The midsection of an insect

    • Metamorphosis: A distinct, drastic change from a young form into its adult form

    • Exoskeleton: A shell casing that makes up an external skeleton for the animal

First, when spotting an odonata, you’ll have to decide whether it’s a damselfly or a dragonfly. The difference between them is an easy-to-spot size discrepancy. A dragonfly’s body is much bigger and thicker than a damsel’s. A dragonfly’s abdomen - or the tail-looking part - will be about as thick as a pencil, while a damsel is always much thinner. A damsel’s abdomen is narrower than a dandelion stem. Another general rule of thumb for either kind is that females have duller and less flashy coloration than males.

female widow skimmer dragonfly

male ebony jewelwing damselfly


After you distinguish if a damsel or dragon, you’ll have to get a bit closer of a look. If it’s a dragonfly it could be a darner, clubtail, cruiser, emerald, or skimmer. Petaltails and spiketails are also groups of dragonflies, but are not found in Iowa. Let’s take a look at the dragonflies you may find in Marion County and central Iowa.

Darners are especially known for having multicolored spots on their abdomen. Photo at left is a green darner, click on the photo to see more.

Clubtails can be fairly easy to distinguish from the others by their club-shaped abdomen. A few common ones around here are cobra clubtail, plains clubtail, and russet tipped clubtail. This is a male cobra clubtail, click on the image for more clubtails.

Cruisers are most identifiable by the one yellowish stripe up the side of their thoraxes - or midsections. They are fairly rare in Iowa. Only three different cruisers have been identified - stream cruisers, Illinois River cruiser, or a royal river cruiser.

Emeralds are rarer in Marion County than other dragonflies. The emerald dragonfly you may find is the prince baskettail (see photo left). Common characteristics of emeralds are bright green eyes on males and they often have brown bodies.

Skimmers are the most common type of dragonfly. If you see a red or orange dragonfly, it will almost certainly be a skimmer. Some common skimmers are: twelve-spotted skimmers, amberwings, dashers, pennants, pondhawks, saddlebags, widow skimmers, and whitetails. At right is a twelve-spotted skimmer, click on the image for more photos of skimmers!


If the odonata you see is a damselfly, there are less groups to distinguish between. It will be a broad-wing, spreadwing, or a pond damsel.

Broad-wing damsels are the easiest among the damsels to pick out due to having colored wings. To find an ebony jewelwing can be such a memorable find.

Spreadwings are easiest to identify while perched. Unlike other damsels, spreadwings don’t rest with their wings folded together but mostly open. Look closely for these little ones. They are very well camouflaged in their surroundings.

Pond Damsels include all the other types of damsels like dancers, bluets, and forktails. They have clear wings and perch with their wings closed.

Can you tell if the damselfly is a broad-wing, spreadwing, or pond damsel? Click on the picture for more images of damselflies.

Where are they found?

You’ll not usually find odonata too far from water. Odonata need water to lay eggs in and to grow up into damsel and dragonflies as we know them. Like butterflies and moths, odonata go through metamorphosis. After hatching from eggs, they will spend their time as aquatic insects scavenging the bottom of the lake or river where they hatched. The larvae of a damselfly looks like a thicker, wingless form of its adult counterpart. Dragonfly larvae look nothing like an adult dragonfly nor a caterpillar, they are born dark and spiny.

One day that darling bug will lose its exoskeleton to become either a dragonfly or damselfly. When they first rise from their early exoskeleton, they’ll appear white as their new exoskeleton dries (see photo left) and absorbs sunlight for the first time. As they dry, they become colorful. Will you be able to identify it as a dragonfly or damselfly?

Water quality

By sampling a body of water and looking at the macroinvertebrates in that water, you can get a general idea of the water quality. In fact some invertebrates tolerate more pollution and poor conditions (like pH and dissolved oxygen) than others.

Learn more here:


    • Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East by Dennis Paulson

    • Damselflies of the Northeast by Ed Lam