What happens after, well, you know?

Guarding Behavior in Some Odonates

What happens after odonates copulate? There are three possible outcomes:

  • Nothing, that is, the male and female copulate, separate, and go their own way before the female lays eggs (oviposition) by herself.
  • “Contact guarding,” in which the male and female fly “in tandem” to egg-laying sites.
  • Non-contact guarding,” also known as “hover guarding,” in which the male flies frantically back-and-forth over the female as she lays eggs in an effort to guard the female from other opportunistic males looking for a mate.

Field Observations

The following photos and videos show a few examples of contact guarding and non-contact guarding, recorded during several years of photowalks at Huntley Meadows Park.

The first photo shows a mating pair of Orange Bluet damselflies (Enallagma signatum) spotted on 24 August 2014. The pair is “in tandem”: the male is on the upper-left; the female on the lower-right. Notice the female is partially submerged as she inserts eggs into aquatic vegetation (endophytic ovipostion). Orange Bluet is a member of the “Pond Damsels” family of damselflies.

Orange Bluet damselflies (mating pair, in tandem)

The next photo shows a mating pair of Common Green Darner dragonflies (Anax junius) spotted on 26 August 2014. The pair is “in tandem”: the male is on the upper-right; the female on the lower-left. The female is laying eggs on the surface of underwater plants (epiphytic ovipostion). The Common Green Darner dragonfly is the only North American darner that usually oviposits in tandem.

Common Green Darner dragonflies (mating pair, in tandem)

The last photo shows a mating pair of Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) spotted on 06 November 2013. The pair is shown “in tandem,” resting between periods of egg-laying: the male is on top; the female is on the bottom. Autumn Meadowhawk is a member of the Skimmer Family of dragonflies.

Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies (mating pair, in tandem)

The first two movies feature mating pairs of Great Blue Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula vibrans); in both videos, the male is shown hover guarding the female as she lays eggs. The first video was recorded on 06 June 2012; the second video was recorded on 24 July 2011.

The last movie features a mating pair of Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia) spotted on 24 July 2011; the male is shown hover guarding the female. Common Whitetail is a member of the Skimmer Family of dragonflies.

Summary

There are three common families of damselflies in the mid-Atlantic United States: Pond Damsels, also known as the “Narrow-winged Damselflies” (Family Coenagrionidae); Broad-winged Damselflies (Family Calopterygidae); and Spreadwings (Family Lestidae).

And there are seven families of dragonflies: Clubtails (Family Gomphidae); Cruisers (Family Macromiidae); Darners (Family Aeshnidae); Emeralds (Family Corduliidae); Petaltails (Family Petaluridae); Skimmers (Family Libellulidae); and Spiketails (Family Cordulegastridae).

I consulted the members of two odonate-related Facebook groups in preparation for writing this post: Northeastern Odonata; and Southeastern Odes. I posed a couple of questions related to odonate reproduction, with the goal of answering one over-arching question: Which families of damselflies and dragonflies engage in some form of post-copulatory guarding?

  1. Is there a common species of dragonfly in which the male abandons the female immediately after mating? No contact guarding, no non-contact guarding, just “Adios muchacha!”
  2. Do all damselfly females lay eggs in tandem with males? If not, then please cite at least one example.

My sincere thanks to two renowned odonate experts who kindly replied to my questions!

Not sure about the first question. I’ve seen plenty of females of many different species arriving alone at a water body to lay eggs but without seeing a mating pair break tandem, it’s hard to say when they separated. Females can store sperm so will often lay eggs without the company of a mate. As for damselflies, off the top of my head, Eastern- and Fragile Forktails typically oviposit alone. Slender Spreadwings too. Source Credit: Ed Lam, author and illustrator of Damselflies of the Northeast.

Skimmers are the only dragonflies in which guarding is common. It doesn’t happen in clubtailscruisers, darners (except of course in a few kinds of green darners that oviposit in tandem), emeralds, petaltails, and spiketails. Among skimmers, stream breeders such as clubskimmers and sylphs don’t have any kind of guarding. In genera such as Pantala gliders and Tramea saddlebags, if they’re not in tandem then the female oviposits by herself. Forktails are among the few pond damsels that don’t oviposit in tandem (a couple of western species are an exception to the exception). Source Credit: Dennis Paulson, author of Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East.

Coming full circle to the title of this post, most dragonfly males do not engage in post-copulatory guarding; most damselfly males do.

Related Resources

Copyright © 2014 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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4 Responses to “What happens after, well, you know?”

  1. Dusky Dancer damselflies (mating pair) | walter sanford's photoblog Says:

    […] upper-left in the following photo; the female is on the lower-right. The male is engaged in “contact guarding,” in which the male and female fly “in tandem” to egg-laying sites. The female is ovipositing […]

  2. More Big Bluet damselflies | walter sanford's photoblog Says:

    […] a while later: the male is on the right; the female is on the left. The male is engaged in “contact guarding,” in which the male and female fly “in tandem” to egg-laying sites. Contact guarding is used […]

  3. Banded Pennants (mating pair, in wheel) | walter sanford's photoblog Says:

    […] female. I had been watching the female oviposit along the shoreline of the pond while a male was hover guarding her. The fact is, I’m not sure whether he was actually hover guarding or waiting for an […]

  4. Powdered Dancer (males, female) | walter sanford's photoblog Says:

    […] male is “contact guarding” the female as the pair flies “in tandem” to egg-laying sites where the female uses […]

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