Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Dance of the Dragonflies

Dragonflies are among the world’s most ancient creatures and have been performing the mid-summer mating dance that I have observed almost every year of my life for 300 million years. That’s more than 100 million years before dinosaurs appeared.

I can remember being fascinated by this dance as a youngster, although I didn’t understand that it was all about making baby dragonflies.

My brother and I would trap lightning bugs in Mason jars to sell to the man at the agricultural research station. He paid us a dime a jar for his research into what made the bugs’ tails glow, but I would never consider trapping dragonflies for any amount of money. Even then they occupied a special place in my world.

Perhaps it was because their dance reminded me of dog fighting World War I flying machines, which captured my imagination at an early age, but I would like to think that the connection was more subtle.

I lived in Japan for a few years. The dragonfly is revered there and depicted on everything from pottery to textiles. I recall one particularly glorious afternoon when I observed their mating dance in the backwater of a stream in the foothills below Mount Fuji.

* * * * * *
After I returned to the States, I would take long walks up the dirt road next to a slow-flowing creek on hot mid-summer days, turn down a narrow footpath through high weeds and slip into the water. It was refreshingly cool four or five feet beneath the surface and I loved to feel the chill percolate up into my chest and then my head.

Dragonflies colonize around creeks and ponds, so it usually wasn’t long before they were performing their dance around me. Sometimes they would alight on my forehead – even in mating tandems -- if I sat perfectly still and thought yoga thoughts and breathed yoga breaths.

It was during this period that I first began reading about odonata, as this family of four winged, six legged insects is called.

I learned that the three species indigenous to my neck of the woods are members of the libellula genus. These include my companions over many a summer -- the bar-winged skimmer (Libellula axilena) like the mating pair in the photo, and the less common great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans). There also is the apparently elusive Jane's meadowhawk (Sympetrum janeae), which is recognizable by its reddish body but has escaped my gaze.

I also learned that these species of dragonflies are short lived (7 to 10 weeks, although some species can live up to four years). They also are territorial.

The mating dance is initiated by the male showing his genitals, of which he is endowed with two sets. This display allows male and female to make sure that they are of the same species and therefore suitable mates. The male then bends his abdomen so that one set of genitals touches the other, which is a sure-fire turn-on for the female, who curls her abdomen forward to make contact with the secondary genitalia and receives the sperm.

As I
have often observed, the ritual can vary.

metimes the male grabs the female by the head or thorax for a “quickie” without going through the dance. Other times the dance is long and elaborate, involving much diving and spinning, including mad charges in reverse, but in either event copulation takes less than a second.

Sometimes male and female remain in tandem for several minutes, as if to say, “Was it as good for you as it was for me?”

The females are acutely sensitive to pollution and will lay their eggs only if the water is clean. Other times they lay them on waterside plants. Sometimes the male acts as a lookout for the female as she lays the eggs he fertilized. In fact, scientists say that males are so committed to their mating partners that they can display signs of jealousy if other males try to nose in.

* * * * *
A few years later, I lived in an old house a short walk from the creek and two particularly lovely spots -- Ring Rock and the Burned Out Bridge.

Ring Rock (also known as the Rock That David Sat On) is a massive limestone remnant of the furthest extent of the last ice age that protrudes from the water at a 25 degree angle. It is so named because an iron ring had been pounded into the rock perhaps 200 years ago so that the locals could tether their wagons to it and lower them into the creek to be cleaned -- an early version of the car wash.

I never learned who David was, but I would slide into the creek below the rock -- an incredible five to six feet deep even in the mid-summer heat -- and watch the dragonflies dance.
Alas, the rock attracted hikers and the occasional swimmer, so I moved on to the Burned Out Bridge.

A pair of overgrown fieldstone foundations on either side of the creek are all that remain of this 19th century covered bridge, which is said to have been torched by a man in the early 1950s so that he and his son could fish undisturbed.

This is at a point just below where the west and middle branches of the creek converge, an area that is heavily silted and quite shallow. It took all of one summer and part of the next, but I methodically moved sand and piled rocks until I had fashioned a pool about four feet deep where I could resume my dragonfly encounters.

My kids were too young to be of much help, but Dark Star, our big goofus of a black labrador retriever, became pretty good at picking up rocks and dropping them onto the sides of our pool.

It was here that I began seriously expanding my horizons to other fauna as I would sit quietly at periscope depth.

There were rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus kykiss), restocked each spring for sport fishermen by the state fish and wildlife agency, and the occasional sunnie (Lepomis machrochirus), as well as some wee fishies that I was never able to positively identify. There were
water-walking spiders (Dolomedes triton), black snakes (Elaphe obsoleta), a water moccasin (Ancistrodon piscivorus), which was a very rare sighting that far north of its southern habitat, and all sorts of toads and frogs, including little frogs called spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer crucifer), so named because of the time of their arrival each year and their high-pitched trill.

Dark Star would slog into the marshy areas between the creek and woods and ingest mouthsful of them.

* * * * *
It is mid-summer again. It's been too hot to trek up to the creek, but I was sitting near a fountain in the quiet university town where I live.

I put down the book I was reading, took off my sunglasses and let the sun beat on my face. My mind drifted back to my childhood and the illustrations in a favorite picture book. The young hero is sick and has been put to bed by his mother where he imagines that the quilt spread out below him is a make-believe world with villages, roads and farm fields. Armies clash across this terrain and dog fighting aeroplanes bob, weave and loop overhead.

I grew drowsy and my mind drifted further when something drew me from my reverie and I opened my eyes.

It was dragonflies doing their dance over the fountain.

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