Saturday 21 April 2018

Save the last dance of the dramatic dragonfly

Dragonflies have been doing their thing on Earth since before the dinosaurs
Dragonflies have been doing their thing on Earth since before the dinosaurs

Fiona O'Connell

I'm not proud of the repugnance that I feel for creepy crawlies, given they are part of the natural world. But thankfully, there are notable exceptions which I love - chiefly, the dragonfly.

The way I see it, if you're going to be an insect, then being the biggest, brightest and most beautiful one is surely the way to go.

Members of the order Odonata ('toothed'), they were one of the first winged insects to evolve, about 300 million years ago. Dragonflies have been doing their thing on Earth since before the dinosaurs.

The wetlands of Ireland are home to some 28 species of dragonfly and their daintier cousins, the damselfly. Yet I saw more of them in the Dublin suburb where I grew up than I have since moving to the country.

Our new estate was surrounded by fields that were home to badgers, hedgehogs and other wildlife. It didn't occur to me that our spanking new house had recently been part of their rapidly disappearing habitat. There was a pond in the grassy meadow halfway up the road, near the big house where Maud Gonne once lived. It was here, during sunny weather, that I remember dragonflies dancing everywhere.

It isn't nostalgia that makes me associate these amazing creatures with salad days. Adult dragonflies are summer citizens who must make the most of their short season. Because for some bizarre reason, they live as nymphs for up to four years, yet only manage a few months of life when they finally mature.

Maybe that's why their love life is short on romance - though they make up for it as fully-fledged members of the mile-high club. Unlike many insects that perform courtship, the male dragonfly cuts to the chase quite literally - using hooks on his tail end to clasp females into the air and copulate.

They are just as racy when it comes to riding the airwaves - so much so, that many engineers dream of making robots that can fly like dragonflies. They can go from a dead halt to about 90 miles per hour in a matter of seconds, as well as effortlessly hover or fly backwards.

If you need more reasons to delight in dragonflies, consider the fact that they are a great control on the mosquito population. While their presence is also an indication of good ecosystem quality, as dragonflies are extremely sensitive to pollution.

All too predictably, we are in danger of losing the dragonfly, thanks to the destruction of bogs and fens, and the eutrophication of waterways. One way to help is not to burn turf that comes from a National Heritage Area or a Special Area of Conservation. Choosing eco-friendly detergents likewise reduces the amount of phosphates in waste water.

Otherwise, it may be the last - not just of the summer wine, but also of the wondrous water witches.

Sunday Independent

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