Thursday, July 21, 2011

Jaggedjaw Jewelwings

Anyone reading this is probably sick of all this talk about insects and would rather I composed an opinion column about the cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3 (seriously, why are you surprised). It is my regret to inform you that since bugs is what I'm into, it's bugs is what I'm blogging.

I usually stop by the pond to visit the damselflies every other day to revitalize myself after the workaday coma. During my last visit, I watched a female land on a leaf about a foot away from my face, and noticed she had something in her mouth.

Given the seemingly dainty, almost ornamental structure of their bodies, the damselfly probably doesn't strike one at first glance as a ravenous carnivore. But these guys are like little airborne sharks: they'll chow down on anything small enough for them to snare in their front limbs and shove into their mouths. (Incidentally, this is would be why I seldom get mosquito bites at this particular pond. The damselflies and dragonflies do an excellent job keeping it free of obnoxious little biters and buzzers.)

This was my first face-to-face look at a damselfly in the middle of a meal. Imagine a person with his hands at his sides and a hoagie sticking lengthwise out of his mouth, and you'll have a decent idea of how this female jewelwing looked as she held this unfortunate fly in her mouth and chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed. Little by little, more and more of the fly disappeared. After about ten minutes of chomping, the meal ended -- but only because the rear half of the abdomen snapped off and fell into the dirt. After that the female ground up the last mouthful and flapped off, pretty as you please.

Where organisms are concerned, it is often the case that the appearance of "cuteness" emerges from the viewer's not looking closely enough. Damselflies are no exception. They only seem dainty and ladylike to you because you're not small enough to have the fear of god thrown into you by their hideously jagged jaws. (Note: the name of their order, Odonata, comes from the Greek odonto, meaning "tooth.")

Let's have a look at some photographs taken by some more talented shutterbugs with more powerful cameras:

Nice whiskers!

These actually aren't teeth: the jaw itself is spiky.

Yes, it definitely should remind you of the Aliens movies.

Not really a mouth pic. Just a snap of the damselfly species (ebony jewelwing) with which I'm familiar.

One of the links above leads to a blog (I won't tell you which one; you'll just have to check them all out) discussing observed homosexual behavior exhibited by the blue-tailed damselfly. Toward the beginning it gives one of the most colorful descriptions of the suborder Zygoptera I've had the pleasure of reading:

The damselflies and the dragonflies are known as the odonata; the toothed jaws. Toothed in jaw they are for very good reason, for these are the birds of prey of the insect world… though in the case of the blue tailed damselfly the birds are too often preyed upon… making the chaps more like damsels. Of course the Odonata could be considered birds of prey if raptors were a bit scarier, about one hundred times the size of their snacks, plucking tiny birds out of the sky, like iridescent and clanking clockwork toothy biplanes.

That last line is especially apt in respect to the creatures' antediluvian lineage. Damselflies have not evolved very that much in the last couple hundred million years. Compared to the younger, smaller, and more streamlined insect species, damselflies seem big, awkward, and ungainly. But it's this rococo clunkiness that endows the little buggers with such unparalleled charm. From a distance, they almost seem like little jeweled automatons assembled by some sultan's tinkerer of antiquity to haunt the hanging gardens of the queen. But one look at those nasty jaws reminds you what they are and by what vicious processes the species was allowed to survive and thrive.


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