The most lethal predator in the animal world is migrating by the thousands through the Lowcountry and the region right now — and you likely don’t pay it much mind.
Found near all rivers and swamps in South Carolina, one native species, the seaside dragonlet, is found in salt marshes, which is an indicator species for water quality.
Literally has eyes in the back of its head; most of the head is the two eyes, giving nearly 360-degree vision.
Each of the four wings can move independently and rotate front to back. A dragonfly can hover, move straight up or down and turn on a hairpin.
Dragonflies migrate along the same flyways as other insects and birds. Just like with the monarch butterfly, it’s a one-way trip: One generation goes and another generation returns.
The globe skimmer dragonfly set an insect world record when a biologist documented its 11,000-mile trip between India and Africa.
Damselflies are distinct from dragonflies in that they have wings that are more slender and held alongside the body rather than out while resting.
University of Calif. Museum of Paleontology. About.com, Coastal Carolina University biology professor Chris Hill, naturalist Billy McCord. National Geographic
The dragonfly is so precise, it kills nearly everything it attacks. It’s so canny, it knows how to separate prey like a lion, feinting after one to close in on another. It’s so vicious that it mates by sticking stingers into the head of the female.
Yep, the dragonfly. That rainbow-colored, four-winged flitterer rivals the butterfly in its mysteries and exceeds it in abilities. Yet the dragonfly is generally so overlooked that few people realize that the common green darner and a handful of other species do migrate. They move much like the monarch butterfly, whose annual swarm to Caribbean lands is waited for and watched all along the coast.
“During the late summer and early fall, that’s when a lot of the insects migrate,” said naturalist Billy McCord of James Island. “The darners are pretty spectacular. I’ve seen them coming over the (Charleston) harbor by the hundreds.”
Now, the dragonfly might be coming into its own in recognition. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just launched a “dragonflying” nature activity at some of its western wildlife refuges that has been taken up at refuges in Texas and Louisiana.
Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge near McBee offers visitors a checklist brochure identifying various species to be found there.
More people are looking to pursuits like birding or butterfly watching. And butterfly watchers sooner or later turn to the dragonfly.
“Birders gone bad,” kidded Chris Hill, Coastal Carolina University biology professor and the newly elected Dragonfly Society of the Americas president, about his pursuit. “It does seem more and more people are interested every day.”
It might be happening just in time. Dragonflies are a bellwether of the wetlands environment: A hatch hovering by the dozens over a swampy summer field is a sign the nearby waters are healthy.
“A lot of the dragonfly species are dependent on clear, flowing water,” Hill said. Although generally the species here are in great shape, they are threatened as waterway wetlands breeding the other insects they eat are threatened.
More than 5,000 dragonfly or damselfly species are found across the world; more than 160 in the state. One in every 10 is considered endangered or threatened.
Only one species, the Townes’ clubtail, is on the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ list of endangered, threatened or rare species that are tracked.
But it might just be people haven’t been looking, with most dragonflies so plentiful.
The cypress clubtail that ranges into South Carolina from Georgia, “you can’t just find anywhere. You have to be in just the right place and time,” Hill said.
The environment is changing and the dragonflies apparently are moving with it. The phantom darner, a coastal species, was not thought to exist here for years until the first one was recorded in recent years, McCord said.
“They are much more common farther south,” he said. But warmer winters apparently are moving them north. He now finds them fairly often on coastal islands.
South Carolina is considered the far northern range of the vividly colored roseate skimmer, more commonly found in Arizona. But McCord spotted them on Patriots Point last year.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.