OPINION

Nature’s Most Colorful Predators

Steve Lekwa

If asked what Iowa’s most colorful predators might be, some folks might think of a Red Fox. Others might think of the brightly colored Kestrel, our smallest falcon. Colorful as those two are, they’re pretty plain compared to what I consider Iowa’s most colorful predators, the dragonflies and damselflies. These aerial jewels come in all the colors of the rainbow and many of them show those colors in dazzling metallic hues that seem to change colors, depending on the reflected sun angle. These insects are most numerous and put on their best show in late summer, too.

Dragonflies and damselflies can usually be found near water. Both lay their eggs in, or at least near water, and spend the early part of their lives in the water. Their habitat preferences as adults are quite different, though. Damselflies are the smaller and more delicate of the two; most not reaching two inches long. They’re so delicate, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine them as predators. They flap slowly through the shadows and often perch on low vegetation over shallow, calm water, with their wings folded over their backs. Even out of the sun, many of them sparkle in iridescent blues and greens that can shade to near black. Dragonflies, on the other hand, are bold fast fliers that may spend most of the day on the wing out in the sun as they patrol for insects over the water or even far out over grassy meadows. Dragonflies can be more than three inches in length with wingspans of more than four inches. They hold their wings flat out when they perch. They display about any color you can think of and often carry several colors in striking patterns. Some sport metallic iridescence like their damselfly kin. Some come in striking patterns of black and white that carry even onto their wings. They are capable of hovering or accelerating to high speed in a flash and can climb and turn in the blink of an eye - the attack helicopters of the insect world.

These amazing and beautiful insect predators feed on animal protein even as aquatic nymphs. Mosquito larvae are among the nymph’s favored foods, just as mosquito adults make up part of their adult diet. Larger dragonfly nymphs sometime catch and eat prey as large as small fish. I recall one evening sitting beside a Boundary Waters lake with my Boy Scouts. It was a Sunday near sundown and we were having a vespers service prior to turning in after a hard day of paddling. We were being pestered by clouds of mosquitoes, but among those hungry pests was a squadron of dragonflies. We watched against the sunset sky as they scooped up individual mosquitoes in dangling nets formed by their legs. They devoured their catch as they flew and zoomed back in to grab more; sometimes passing so close that their wings brushed our faces.

Picking out details on even a small bird is pretty easy at 10 feet away, but studying dragonflies and damselflies is aided by a good pair of binoculars that have the ability to focus at fairly close range. The binoculars bring out details that would be missed with the naked eye. There are now field guides that help identify the many species of dragonflies and damselflies that call Iowa home. A check on Wikipedia will guide you to several of them. Almost any body of water or stream will host a few of these wonderful insects, but one of the best local places to view them is by hiking or biking the trails near the lake and wetlands at Ames’ Ada Hayden Park, where many species have been identified. The variety of aquatic and prairie habitats there is just about ideal. Plan a walk some evening soon and enjoy watching Iowa’s most colorful predators.