Most nature enthusiasts are aware of the odonates (damselflies and dragonflies). Even those who know them only from cottages or camping recognize that not only are they beautiful, but they are also welcome predators, consuming 1000s of blackflies, deerflies, and mosquitoes (i.e., all the “nasties” who prey on us!) during their short but amazing lives.

However, not many people know that there are 511 different species in North America, including approximately 163 in Ontario — 120 occur in the Ottawa-Hull area (within 50 km of the Peace Tower)! Until very recently, only highly technical and rather intimidating scientific publications were available for learning about these insects, but thanks to an increased interest especially among bird-watchers, a few more user-friendly field guides are finally coming off the presses.

Odonates belong to an ancient order of insects that is at least 300 million years old. And their life cycle gives us many clues as to how they managed to persist (with very few changes over the millennia) for so long. They were built for survival!

Odonate eggs are laid in aquatic environments such as ponds, lakes, and rivers (most species prefer specific habitats). They hatch into larvae commonly called “nymphs” — a deceptively pretty name for what are truly bizarre-looking crawling creatures with voracious appetites and hunting techniques that would rival those of “Jaws.” After several weeks to several months of preying on tadpoles, insect larvae, and sometimes each other, the odonate nymphs eventually crawl out of the water, breathe air, and the adults emerge. The emergence is a spectacular event for those lucky enough to observe it. The young adult, called a “teneral,” bursts through the back of the nymphal skin and pulls itself out. Once its wings and body are fully expanded, dried, and hardened, the teneral begins its life in flight.

Shed skin (exuviae) of dragonfly larva; photo Diane Lepage

Lance-tipped Darners, mating, wheel position; photo Christine Hanrahan

And what a life! Most odonate species live for only a few weeks, but their lives are full of experiences that might make many humans envious: long-distance travel, aerial hunting and territorial battles, high-tech body designs (including nearly 360 vision and the ability to fly both forward and backward at high speeds), and lots of very acrobatic sex. During mating, the male uses claspers at the end of his abdomen to grasp the female behind her head. If she accepts him, she bends her own abdomen around so that her vulvar plates meet his secondary genitalia, which are located near the underside of his thorax — and a heart-shaped “flying wheel” is created. With her sharp ovipositor, the female deposits her eggs into moist soil, aquatic vegetation, or directly into the water… and the life cycle begins again.

Although all odonates lead similar lives, the diversity of families, genera, and species within the order is remarkable in terms of appearance and behaviour. Many of our common damselflies and dragonflies can be easy to identify, even through binoculars or with the naked eye. But most can only be learned through capture and close examination of the various colour patterns and the genitalia. It is not necessary to harm them, but it sure can be a lot of fun trying to capture them, and it’s always awesome to get up-close and personal with these winged wonders!

Bluets in “tandem” position with female inserting egg underwater into plant stem; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson


Damselflies (suborder Zygoptera) are generally small and delicate, with widely separated eyes and wings that are usually held together above the thorax. Weak fliers compared to dragonflies, they are often found hiding among vegetation or flying low over ponds and streams. Some of the common damselflies that may be found at the FWG are:

Spotted Spreadwing; photo Barry Cottam

Suborder Zygoptera Damselflies
Coenagrionidae Pond damsels
Argia moesta Powdered Dancer
Calopteryx maculata Ebony Jewelwing
Coenagrion resolutum Taiga Bluet
Enallagma sp. Bluet
Ischnura posita Fragile Forktail
Ischnura verticalis Eastern Forktail
Nehalennia irene Sedge Sprite
Lestidae Spreadwings
Lestes congener Spotted Spreadwing
Lestes disjunctus Northern Spreadwing
Lestes dryas Emerald Spreadwing
Lestes rectangularis Slender Spreadwing
Lestes eurinus Amber-winged Spreadwing

Four-spotted Skimmer; photo Christine Hanrahan


Dragonflies (suborder Anisoptera) are generally more robust, although some species may be nearly as small as damselflies. Some families have eyes that join, others have separated eyes, but all anisopterans hold their wings out at right-angles to the thorax, like miniature airplanes — and they can fly like jet-fighters! A few species that are very common in Ottawa and may be seen at the FWG are:

Suborder Anisoptera Dragonflies
Aeshnidae Darners
Aeshna canadensis Canada Darner
Aeshna constricta Lance-tipped Darner
Aeshna eremita Lake Darner
Aeshna umbrosa Shadow Darner
Anax junius Common Green Darner
Gomphidae Clubtails
Dromogomphus spinosus Black-shouldered Spinyleg
Macromiidae Cruisers
Didymops transversa Stream Cruiser
Macromia illinoiensis Swift river Cruiser
Corduliidae Emeralds
Cordulia shurtleffi American Emerald
Epitheca cynosura Common Baskettail
Epitheca canis Beaverpond Baskettail
Epitheca princeps Prince Baskettail
Libellulidae Skimmers
Erythemis simplicicollis Common Pondhawk
Leucorrhinia intacta Dot-tailed Whiteface
Ladona julia Chalk-fronted Skimmer
Libellula luctuosa Widow Skimmer
Libellula pulchella Twelve-spotted Skimmer
Libellula quadrimaculata Four-spotted Skimmer
Plathemis lydia Common Whitetail
Sympetrum obtrusum White-faced Meadowhawk
Sympetrum semicinctum Band-winged Meadowhawk
Sympetrum vicinum Autumn Meadowhawk

Widow Skimmer with blue pruinescence indicative of an adult male; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson

More information

Good references for beginners

  • Bracken, R. and Lewis, C. 1998. A Checklist of the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Ottawa-Hull. Trail and Landscape, 32(3): 126-136. The Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club
  • Dubois, Bob  and Mike Reese 2005. Damselflies in the North Woods. Duluth, MN: Kollath+Staensaas
  • Dunkle, Sidney W. 2000. Dragonflies through Binoculars. Oxford University Press, New York, NY
  • Holder, M.; Burke, P.; and Kingsley, A. 1996. The Dragonflies and Damselflies of Algonquin Provincial Park (Algonquin Park Technical Bulletin No. 11). Friends of Algonquin Park, Whitney, ON
  • Mead, Kurt 2009. Dragonflies in the North Woods. Duluth, MN: Kollath+Staensaas

On-line references

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This page was revised 22 August 2021
© Fletcher Wildlife Garden
Text: Christina Lewis, OFNC
Photos: Christine Hanrahan, Diane Lepage, Barry Cottam, D. Gordon E. Robertson
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