Differentiating Dragonflies and Damselflies

An astounding 16 species of dragonflies and damselflies have already been identified at Nature Boardwalk. To tell one of these species from the next, biologists use species identification keys to look for specific features.

The first step is figuring out whether an insect is a dragonfly or a damselfly. These two groups share a common biological heritage: both are suborders within the scientific order Odonta. They are similar in other ways as well. Both are carnivores, eating other insects. Both start their lives in the water as nymphs and then emerge as flying insects.


A calico pennant demonstrates the typical dragonfly resting posture at Nature Boardwalk. Photo courtesy of Jessica Roldan.

A blue banded dancer damselfly at rest.

So how do you tell the difference between them? Follow these pointers!

Wings at Rest: If the insect holds its wings together over its back, it’s a damselfly. In contrast, dragonflies hold their wings open when resting.

Eyes: In dragonflies, the eyes touch or almost touch. In damselflies, the eyes are separate, located on the sides of the head.

Wing Shape: In dragonflies, the back wings are broader at the base than the front wings. In damselflies, the front and back wings are similarly shaped.

Body Shape: A dragonfly’s thorax (the part of the body to which the wings attach) is broader than the abdomen (the part that extends outward from the thorax, opposite the head). Dragonflies tend to be larger and stockier than damselflies.

Now you can tell the difference between dragonflies and damselflies. Be sure to try out your new skill next time you visit Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo!

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