Can I see some eye-dentification?

It may seem like all dragonflies look alike when you’re beginning to learn how to identify dragonflies. For example, all dragonflies have large, multifaceted compound eyes. Look closely. Careful observation of the color, shape, and size of eyes should enable you to quickly identify the family (or families) of dragonflies to which a specimen may belong.

The following field markers — used in combination with a good field guide to dragonflies, a species list for your location, and the process of elimination — should enable you to identify unknown specimens more quickly than randomly trying to find a match between your specimen and one of the 316 of species of dragonflies known to occur in the United States!

Clubtail Family (and Petaltail Family)

The eyes of clubtail dragonflies (and petaltails) are widely separated, somewhat similar to the eyes of damselflies. The Clubtail Family is the second largest family of dragonflies, so this field marker should be useful for identifying a lot of dragonflies to the family level — if only clubtails were as easy to identify down to the species level!

Ashy- or Lancet Clubtail dragonfly

09 MAY 2013 | Meadowood Recreation Area | Ashy/Lancet Clubtail (female)

The preceding dragonfly is either an Ashy Clubtail (Gomphus lividus) or Lancet Clubtail (Gomphis exilis). Ashy- and Lancet Clubtail dragonflies are similar in appearance and difficult to differentiate with complete certainty. But one look at those eyes and you know it’s definitely some species of clubtail!

Spiketail Family

Notice the eyes of the following dragonfly nearly touch at a point between its eyes — that’s a distinctive field marker for the Spiketail Family.

Brown Spiketail dragonfly (female)

09 MAY 2013 | Meadowood Recreation Area | Brown Spiketail (female)

Cruiser, Emerald, and Skimmer Families

In a few families of dragonflies, the eyes meet along a short seam near the face.

The Skimmer Family is the largest family of dragonflies. Many species of Skimmers are common and fairly easy to identify.

There are fewer species of dragonflies in the Cruiser Family than the Skimmer Family; no other dragonflies in the United States look similar to cruisers.

Stream Cruiser dragonfly (male)

02 MAY 2013 | Accotink Bay Wildlife Refuge | Stream Cruiser (male)

Many species of the Emerald Family feature distinctive bright green eyes, hence the family name.

Mocha Emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora linearis)

25 JUL 2012 | The Wildlife Sanctuary | Mocha Emerald (male)

Darner Family

The eyes of Darners meet along a long seam from front-to-back.

Common Green Darner dragonflies (mating pair, in tandem)

14 AUG 2012 | Huntley Meadows Park | Common Green Darner (mating pair)


OK, let’s apply what you just learned. Looking at the eyes only, can you identify the family for the following dragonfly? If you would like to know whether your answer is correct, then please leave a comment.

Teacher’s Note: In order to avoid revealing the answer to the one-question quiz as soon as the first person comments, I changed the settings for this blog so that comments must be approved manually.

Common Sanddragon dragonfly (male)

26 JUN 2015 | Wickford Park | [Insert family name here.]

Editor’s Notes: This post is adapted from Dragonfly Head & Eyes, one of many excellent guides on the Odes for Beginners Web site. Thanks for the inspiration, Sheryl Chacon!

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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