When I noted in a recent posting called Transformation, that I had not yet witnessed the remarkable metamorphosis of a dragonfly, I never suspected that only a few day later I would somehow manage to observe such a transformation of a Common Sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus) from start to finish at relatively close range.
Nymphs of this species of dragonfly crawl out of the water onto a sandy beach to begin the process and I knew of the bank of a stream where this had been taking place over the past week or so, having observed there newly emerged teneral dragonflies and the discarded exoskeletons known as exuviae. However, what were the chances that I would be able to be at the right location at precisely the right time? I figured the odds were about the same as winning the lottery.
Last Friday around noon I spotted several exuviae in the sand as I was walking along that section of the stream. I bent down, picked them up, and placed them in the palm of my hand in order to get a good look at them. Having spotted Unicorn Clubtails in this location along with Common Sanddragons, I wondered if these was a way to tell which species of dragonfly had emerged from a given exuvia. As I continued to walk, I suddenly became aware that something was crawling around in my hand—one of my presumed exuviae was in fact a live nymph.
I experienced an initial moment of shock, but realized pretty quickly that I needed to get the nymph back onto the sand. If I had been thinking a little more clearly, I might have chosen a spot that optimized my chances for capturing good images, but instead I selected a location where I could see another exuvia and gently placed the nymph there.
I placed my eye to the viewfinder of my camera and began to wait and to watch. Within a very short period of time I began to see signs of movement in the thorax area of the nymph, just behind the eyes, and before long the head of the dragonfly appeared as it began to pull its body out of the soon-to-be-discarded shell. It took about eight minutes for the body to be entirely free of the exoskeleton.
The dragonfly changed positions so that it could extend its abdomen and begin the process of extending its wings, which at this stage were merely nubs. Over the next twenty minutes or so, the wings and the abdomen grew larger and larger. My original shooting position was no longer optimal, so I ended up standing in the stream to get a view of what was happening. The water was about six to eight inches deep (15 to 20 cm) and my non-waterproof boots were quickly soaked. As I crouched to get as close as I could to the eye level of the dragonfly, I suddenly realized that the seat of my pants was getting wetter.
Twenty seven minutes after the process had started, the wings of the newly emerged dragonfly snapped open to the familiar position of dragonfly wings. At this moment they were very clear and obviously very fragile and I experienced a moment of concern for the vulnerable dragonfly when a slight wind kicked up. Fortunately, though, I had chosen a somewhat sheltered position and the dragonfly was safe. The wings continued to harden and six minutes later the dragonfly flew off to some nearby vegetation to begin its new life.
I took a lot of photos of the process of metamorphosis and it was hard to choose which ones to post. In the caption area of each of them,I have indicated the time at which the photo was taken. The transformation began at 12:19 and the dragonfly flew away at 12:52.
Fellow dragonfly enthusiast and photographer Walter Sanford witnessed the emergence of a Common Sanddragon at a nearby, but different location on 1 June and did a blog posting on it today. Be sure to check out his posting for some great photos and a detailed explanation of what is happening within the dragonfly’s body as it undergoes this dramatic metamorphosis.
© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.