Miraculous metamorphosis

I was sitting on my Coleman camp stool on the earthen dam at Hidden Pond, Meadowood Recreation Area, hoping the sky would clear so I could see some odonates. The sky was almost completely overcast; as a result, I hadn’t seen any dragonflies or damselflies all morning.

My cell phone rang. Matt Ryan, a good friend and part-time naturalist at Huntley Meadows Park, called to tell me about a dragonfly larva he spotted that had just started to transform into an adult. I was conflicted for a few minutes: Meadowood Recreation Area is much farther from my home than Huntley Meadows Park so I was reluctant to leave empty-handed, so to speak, especially since several species of odonates can be seen at Meadowood that aren’t known to occur at Huntley. Fortunately I came to my senses and drove to Huntley as quickly as possible.

The following photo is the first image from a three-hour time-series documenting an emergent female Common Whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), located within a few feet from the boardwalk in the central wetland area at Huntley Meadows Park. The miraculous metamorphosis was well underway by the time I arrived at the spot. Elapsed time is expressed in hh:mm:ss format.

A Common Whitetail dragonfly spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is an emerging female.

07 MAY 2016 | 11:21 am EDT | Elapsed time: 00:00:00

The wings, folded like accordions, then begin to fill from the base with fluid transferred from the body and fairly soon reach full length. Source Credit: Paulson, Dennis (2011-12-19). Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton Field Guides) (Kindle Locations 466-467). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

A Common Whitetail dragonfly spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is an emerging female.

07 MAY 2016 | 11:32 am EDT | Elapsed time: ~00:11:00

A Common Whitetail dragonfly spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is an emerging female.

07 MAY 2016 | 12:20 pm EDT | Elapsed time: ~00:59:00

The fluid is then pumped back into the abdomen, and it expands. Source Credit: Paulson, Dennis (2011-12-19). Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton Field Guides) (Kindle Locations 467-468). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Notice the wings are nearly clear in following photo, indicating the greenish-colored fluid that formerly filled the wings is almost gone. The abdomen is noticeably longer in this photo than in the first image in the time-series, taken at 11:21 EDT.

A Common Whitetail dragonfly spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is an emerging female.

07 MAY 2016 | 12:43 pm EDT | Elapsed time: ~01:22:00

At this point, a pair of terminal appendages (cerci) was clearly visible at the end of the abdomen, indicating this individual is a female.

Notice the wing spots are beginning to darken. A pattern of dark spots on all four wings, characteristic of female Common Whitetail dragonflies, will develop within a few days to a week-or-so after emergence.

A Common Whitetail dragonfly spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is an emerging female.

07 MAY 2016 | 01:23 pm EDT | Elapsed time: ~02:02:00

Finally, the wings open up, and very soon the teneral adult flies away. Source Credit: Paulson, Dennis (2011-12-19). Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton Field Guides) (Kindle Locations 468). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

The pair of wings on her right side snapped into the resting position approximately two hours and 18 minutes (~02:18:00) after I started this time-series of photos.

A Common Whitetail dragonfly spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is an emerging female.

07 MAY 2016 | 01:38:42 pm EDT | Elapsed time: 02:17:42

The pair of wings on her left side snapped into the resting position one minute and four seconds (00:01:04) later.

A Common Whitetail dragonfly spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is an emerging female.

07 MAY 2016 | 01:39:46 pm EDT | Elapsed time: 02:18:46

Her wings quivered slightly at ~02:24:00 pm and then she flew away.

A Common Whitetail dragonfly spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is an emerging female.

07 MAY 2016 | 02:24 pm EDT | Elapsed time: ~03:03:00

The last photo shows the cast skin from the emergent dragonfly, technically known as an exuvia (singular).

A cast skin from a Common Whitetail dragonfly spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This is the exuvia of an emerging female.

07 MAY 2016 | 02:28 pm EDT | Elapsed time: ~03:07:00

Although I have seen two emerging dragonflies from a different family, albeit briefly, and seen several exuviae (plural) in situ, this was my first opportunity to observe the process carefully for several hours. Sincere thanks to Matt Ryan for kindly thinking of me!

Copyright © 2016 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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10 Responses to “Miraculous metamorphosis”

  1. Victor Rakmil Says:

    A Sensational post.

  2. laura lecce Says:

    Hi Walter,
    what a great moment to be a spectator on!
    I absolutely love your sequential photos with the description as to what is happening, this is so fascinating to me!
    Laura

  3. Nick'swildlife Says:

    A great sequence of photos, you’re so lucky (and patient) to have been able to witness such a wonderful spectacle.

    • waltersanford Says:

      I’m lucky to have a good friend who knows me well enough to know I’d LOVE TO SEE an emergent dragonfly! I’m not known as a patient person, but hey, I’ve been waiting years for a golden opportunity like this one. In that light, I was “all in” for the duration of the event.

  4. Christy Says:

    What a great series of an insect unpacking itself! Amazing how those emergent fairy wings unfurl into precision helicopter blades.

  5. Common Whitetail dragonfly (teneral female) | walter sanford's photoblog Says:

    […] Showcasing some of my digital photography and videography. « Miraculous metamorphosis […]

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