The Amazing Dragonfly

Dragonflies are among the largest and oldest insects to inhabit the earth, having changed very little in the last 300 million years. Today, over 5,000 species have been identified; 450 are in North America. They range in wingspan from less than an inch in Malaysia to over 7 inches in South America. The fossil record includes a dragonfly with a wingspan nearly 30 inches long.

Dragonflies have four wings that can move independently. Dragonflies hover, fly backward and roll with ease. Each wing has a high strength-to-weight ratio and can beat 35 times a second, allowing for in-flight feeding. From a still, mid-air position, dragonflies can accelerate to over 60 miles an hour in less than a second. The US military has spent millions to better understand their unusual design.

Their namesake arises from the toothed jaw and hinged lip that they use to consume other airborne insects. Despite appearances, dragonflies are harmless to humans. In fact, they help to control other insect pests in addition to having an amazing diversity of color.

As nymphs, they do not chase prey but hide under a portion of their own lip. With only their eyes revealed, they wait up to several weeks to trap small aquatic neighbors. Gills in their hindquarters breathe and can propel them should a predator approach. For a period of up to five years, they shed and grow new skin. Then, in one day, a nymph will leave the water domain; and from its flesh arise wings that fill with blood. The sun dries and hardens the wings and external skeleton. In this transformed state, they may live only a few months.

The Beautiful Hine's Emerald Dragonfly

The Hine's emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) exhibits a unique mix of natural beauty and engineering. They have slender, metallic bodies with green, brown or black coloring. Yellow lateral strips mark their thorax and fade into white as they age. A rich emerald green color covers their enormous eyes that possess almost 360-degree peripheral vision. Similar to all dragonflies, a great deal of their brain is dedicated to vision. The Hine’s emerald’s wings span about 2 and half inches.

Only a few sites on earth provide habitat for these rare creatures – scattered places in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Missouri. Door County, Wisconsin is their breeding stronghold. It is suspected that the dragonfly has already been lost in Ohio, Indiana and Alabama.

Center leads effort for critical habitat designation

After years of delay, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Hine's emerald dragonfly as an endangered species in January 1995, making it the only dragonfly on the ESA register. At that time, however, the agency choose not to protect the dragonfly’s critical habitat, claiming that it lacked the scientific knowledge of the species to make this designation. Since then, the agency has published over half a dozen documents emphasizing habitat destruction from development and urban sprawl as a primary threat. The agency voiced its intention to make this designation in different versions of its "Semiannual Regulatory Agenda" and "Recovery Plan" – where it even specifies known habitats where the Hine’s emerald has a stronghold. The FWS repeatedly indicated habitat loss as the primary threat to the dragonfly.

These habitats play a critical role in a species capability not only to stabilize but also to return to a normal population size. Without a habitat where this dragonfly can experience successive years of growth, it will not recover. Yet, the FWS has never provided any specific protection for these areas despite acknowledging habitat destruction as the primary threat, as early as 1993. Failure to provide this designation is a clear example of agency inaction, but is no surprise. Over 80 species listed as threatened or endangered live in the Great Lakes region, but FWS has only designated critical habitat for 4, and 2 of those were as a result of court orders.

More recently, in an unexplainable move, in 2001, the Bush administration published a notice of its decision to ‘withdraw’ the critical habitat designation, without any explanation, even though the FWS never proposed the designation in the first place. Given the FWS inaction, on October 29 2003, the Center for Biological Diversity, Northwoods Wilderness Recovery, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Michigan Nature Association, Door County Environmental Council and Habitat Education Center filed a 60-day notice, demanding the agency finally take action to designate the critical habitat essential to the dragonfly's recovery.

graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
December 10, 2003
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