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Culture: 300 million years and counting says Suffolk Wildlife Trust

swt (3031780)
swt (3031780)

Long before Tyrannosaurus rex roamed what is now western North America, dragonflies first appeared on earth. These incredible insects boasting wingspans of up to 70cm zipped around the oxygen-rich planet along with giant cockroaches and other wild beasts around 300 million years ago.

Our modern equivalents may lack the gargantuan proportions of these prehistoric marvels, but they are no less impressive. Each of their four wings can be independently moved so they have the ability to fly in any direction, including sideways and backwards, as well as allowing them to hover in a single spot for a minute or more.

Along with this manoeuvrability, some also have a very impressive turn of pace – larger species like the hawkers can hit a maximum speed of almost 30mph, faster than any human sprinter.

If you’re lucky enough to see one up close, have a look at their huge eyes which take up most of their head. Almost 80 per cent of their brain power is dedicated to sight and they have near-360 degree vision. Combined with their incredible aerial skills, this makes them formidable and very successful hunters – they have up to a 95 per cent success rate when catching their insect prey in flight.

Although no doubt terrifying if you happen to be a small insect, dragonflies pose no threat whatsoever to humans. Despite being known as ‘Horse Stingers’ in European folklore, they do not sting. This name derives from misinformed observations of dragonflies hovering around horses while they kicked and stamped. People assumed it was these large, obvious insects doing the stinging when in fact, the horses’ irritation was caused by unseen biting insects which the dragonflies were feeding on.

In the UK, there are around 30 species of dragonfly that may be encountered. Ten species are seen regularly at Lackford Lakes, including the Emperor Dragonfly which is one of the largest species in Europe.

The adult male Emperor is a beautiful but fearsome predator which can be seen hunting and defending his territory with gusto over well-vegetated ponds and lakes, while the equally striking female lays her eggs, alone, in floating pondweed.

Even the larvae of this impressive insect are voracious hunters, armed with fearsome mouthparts known as a ‘mask’ which is normally tucked under the head. The mask can be extended in under 25 milliseconds, spearing anything up to the size of a small fish.

Now is a great time to head out on the reserve to watch these beautiful creatures dart, hawk, skim and chase around the ponds, streams and lakes. You may even be lucky enough to spot a kingfisher perched on a branch, devouring a freshly-caught dragonfly larva.

Olly Clanford

Development officer

Suffolk Wildlife Trust