300 million years ago, dragonflies were as large as seagulls. The Carboniferous period, part of the Paleozoic era, gave rise to massive plants, reptiles and insects. During this time, insects developed wings and the ability to fly. A fossil of a dragonfly from that period shows a wingspan of 2.5 feet.
The dragonflies we see today are not as large as their ancestors, but Texas is home to a smaller “giant” — the giant darner dragonfly. With a wingspan of up to 5 inches and a long abdomen, it’s the largest dragonfly found in North America. A giant darner is easily identified by its bright green head and arched abdomen that makes up two-thirds of its body length. Its abdomen is mostly brown, with females displaying green spots and males blue.
Rarely found resting, giant darners sport clear-veined wings that propel them to speeds of 20 mph, slower than most dragonflies, which can reach speeds up to 35 mph. Giant darners can fly in any direction, even upside-down. Four wings enable them to hover, like a helicopter, so they can eat (and even mate) mid-air.
Both dragonflies and damselflies belong to the order Odonata, Greek for “toothed one,” referring to their jagged teeth. There are more than 450 North American species identified in the U.S. and Canada. Texas is home to 238 of those species, more than in any other state.
Unlike other insects, dragonflies do not typically bite. The small handful that are capable of attacking do so as a defense mechanism but do not have strong enough mandibles to tear through human skin. However, these harmless insects have been negatively viewed by some throughout history. European folklore refers to them as “ear cutters” and “devil’s darning needles” because of the myth that their claspers would stitch up the ears, mouths and eyes of children who misbehaved or of adults who cursed.
Thankfully, we now know we have nothing to fear. Rather than torment us, dragonflies do us a favor. They control pesky insect populations by consuming dozens to hundreds of insects per day. Giant darners catch prey with their feet, rip off its wings with their strong jaws and instantly devour it. The next time you come in from the outdoors without any bug bites, thank our natural pest control, the dragonfly.