Dragonfly Metamorphosis In Action

At Nature Boardwalk last week I was able to witness one of nature’s most amazing spectacles right before my eyes, entirely by accident! As the zoo’s coordinator of wildlife management, I spend a lot of time surveying to see which specific species can be found at Nature Boardwalk, but some of my most amazing discoveries are by accident. This was no exception.

I’ve seen many dragonfly exuviae (the shed exoskeletons left behind by dragonflies when they transform from an aquatic nymph to a flying adult), but I’d never seen a dragonfly in the actual process of emerging. I was really lucky to see this and lucky that I had my camera handy to show you as well.

Dragonflies undergo a particular type of metamorphosis that is called incomplete metamorphosis. This is in contrast to complete metamorphosis, which takes place in the life cycle of butterflies, for example. In butterflies, the caterpillar does not resemble the adult butterfly at all, and there is an intermediate step involved, the cocoon.

In contrast, the nymph of a dragonfly bears some resemblance to the adult form, although you have to look closely. The nymph doesn’t have wings, but it does have large eyes, a body similar to that of the adult dragonfly and legs like the adult. Imagine a dragonfly without the wings, and it does look like an elongated nymph. Also, the dragonfly goes directly from the nymph form to the adult form. The entire process of dragonfly metamorphosis takes about an hour. That seems a remarkably short time to completely change your body and lifestyle! Although the metamorphosis is technically incomplete, it is nonetheless truly astounding.

A dragonfly at Nature Boardwalk emerging from the exuvia, or shed exoskeleton, and stretching out its wings for the very first time.

A close-up of the emerging dragonfly.

Vicky Hunt


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