I tried to chase one once. Finally stopped, dizzy and breathless, and just watched the loops and swoops, sunlight shining through those transparent, delicately veined wings, the spindly body a bright iridescent blue, like it grabbed a piece of the rainbow and kept it to wear.
Even trying to follow that spiraling flight with my eyes wore me out. Dragonflies’ names tell the story: black darter, blue dasher, brown hawker, green darner, wandering glider, widow skimmer, four-spotted chaser. What would it feel like to fly that free?
Merlin trained Arthur by turning him into different animals so he could absorb their skills, their way of being in the world. If I were a dragonfly, I would be all motion and all eyes, giant eyes with thousands of facets so I could see nearly 360 degrees without craning. The only blind spot (I have so many now) would be a sliver directly behind me. Color would intensify and expand. I could see ultraviolet light. And soaking up all that sunlight would stabilize me in flight, letting me navigate without the GPS lady.
Whizzing along, I spot a mosquito, gauge its speed and flight pattern, then ambush in midair, catching it with my black string legs and ripping its wings off with my serrated mandibles so it cannot escape. I am of the Odonata order; the name means “toothed ones,” and mine, while not sharp enough to devour you, can neatly dice a mosquito. I do so in midair.
My kill rate is ninety-five percent. I have been known to eat hundreds of mosquitoes in a single day. As for evading predators who would do the same to me, I can fly, when in top form, eighteen miles an hour. My cousin species, the globe skimmer, logs 11,000 miles for its annual transatlantic migration. Once a scientist stuck teeny transmitters to my wings with eyelash adhesive and superglue—I could have done without the superglue—and tracked my movements, noticing that I travel only every third day, but on those days, I log more than seven miles before stopping to rest and hunt. My social life consists of swarming—perhaps for feeding, perhaps for migration, you are not yet sure, and I am not going to be the one who divulges the secret handshake. Check with the Dragonfly Swarm Project.
In provenance, I am ancient. My species originated before flowers bloomed. My line traces back 300 million years. Some of my ancestors had the wingspan of a hawk; they grew huge in the oxygen-rich atmosphere. Sixty-six million years ago, when the asteroid smashed into Earth, we were one of the only species to survive the impact. Down went the lumbering dinosaurs, down went three-fourths of everybody else, and still we looped and glided.
Today there are thousands of our species today, and the world acknowledges our exquisite appearance with such names as Hine’s emerald, ebony jewelwing, golden-ringed dragonfly, emerald spreadwing.
When I fly, I hold my wings out straight. I have two sets of wings, and I can feel the muscles tighten in my thorax as I shift, making subtle adjustments to change each wing’s angle independently. You dream of making robots that fly like me. Engineers study my wings’ elasticity and structural patterns to design biomimetic micro air vehicles, drones that can maneuver around power lines, dart indoors, or fly down narrow alleys.
Allow me to show off a little, flying first sideways, then backwards, then hovering above a lake. On the breeze wafts a lightly dank, green smell of rot. I am at home here. I was born in the water and lived there as a nymph, breathing through gills, sucking oxygen from the wet. Already I was moving, shooting water out of my body to propel myself with a whoosh. When I came of age, my body lengthening, I flew above reeds and tall grasses until I reached an open field, where I supped on mosquitoes and sometimes the blood that filled them (which may have been yours, for which I apologize). But I never flew too far from the water, and I found I could not fly at all if the air was cold or wet. I hid in the groundcover and outwaited the sun.
I have gorgeous dark markings, patches of melanin on my wings that, lately, are scorching hot. They absorb solar radiation, and when the temperature climbs, I soon feel quite woozy. Checking my reflection in the lake’s surface, I can see that the patches are shrinking to protect me—but that, too, is a disaster: Those big dark patterns are my secret weapon, attracting mates and warn off rivals as surely as your males flex their biceps. As Dr. Michael Moore, a postdoctoral research associate at Washington University, pointed out in a recent study, adapting to climate is a dicey business these days. With less color, I might wind up mating with the wrong species . . . or not mating at all.
And here my human imagination falters, because I am glad dragonflies do not know what is happening to them. More than one-third of the world’s wetlands have drained away, gotten paved over, or evaporated in the rising heat. Lakes are shallower and streams more stagnant, with less of the dissolved oxygen the nymphs need. There are fewer places for dragonflies to be born and to come of age.
Like many humans, they cannot breathe.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.