Handsome Male and Drab Female Dragonflies- but Females Rule!



I am always awe struck this time of year by the antics of dragonflies around our ponds. The aerial dogfights of the mainly male groups are mesmerizing as are their striking colors and patterns. Yet the females are often much less handsome than the males.

I show two examples of males and females from our farm in Baywood, VA, to illustrate this point. The female slaty and widow skimmers are predominantly colored in drab hues that seem well designed as camouflage. In contrast the males are colored with striking patterns of blues and whites.

Why is there this difference in colors and patterns that make the males more “handsome” or showy than the females? The usual explanation is that the males are displaying their virility and competing among themselves for territory at the ponds. The females come to the ponds and choose which males they want to mate with, based perhaps on the appearance of the male and/or the quality of his territory .

I am constantly amazed that such primitive insects as dragonflies (about 250-300 million years old) have such an intricate system of reproduction. This seems to be another example of how early in geological time complex behaviors could have originated, compared to the relatively recent origin of humans.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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