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June 20, 2022

A Transformation

By Sand Pilarski

One morning this past summer, I arose to a household in a state of excitement. A dragonfly nymph had crawled up the wall beside our front door, and a dragonfly had just emerged from the shell.

Dragonfly nymphs live underwater for over a year, dodging fish, growing, and shedding their skin from time to time. Then when the time is right, they respond to some biological signal, and climb out of the water.

This one climbed up the wall beside our front door and clung there, safe from predators, but not from paparazzi. Poor patient creature, it gripped its old shell, its abdomen slowly stretching from a lumpy blunt mass to a long, graceful body.

My camera has a low-light setting, fortunately, because the porch is in full shade in the mornings, but so that we could assure ourselves of some good pictures, we brought out a flashlight, and on macro setting, got some spectacular views.

Not only is the transformation from nymph to adult an amazing thing to see happen right outside one's front door, but also a stunning validation of the success of our water habitat in the fish pond off the front porch.

We have often watched dragonflies skimming over the little pond, marveled at the one year the wasps had an population explosion and frequented the pool for water, and caught a great egret stalking the remaining fish (the dastardly villain ate all but one of the named fish), but this year has been a triumph, as we discovered five baby fish swimming with the big guys ... and now this creature, grown in the waters of a front yard fish pond.

In this second side shot, you can see how much longer the abdomen of the bug has become. And still the creature hung there, unmoving. After a while, I saw two water droplets fall from the abdomen, dropping ballast, I suppose, getting ready for the aerodynamics of flight.

I can't remember a time when I wasn't fascinated by dragonflies (and damselflies, too). There was a small lake about twenty minutes from where I lived called Zook's Dam; I loved visiting there in the summer, seeing the bluegills beneath the water lilies, the dragonflies lighting on top of the flowers.

Over the course of the summer morning, we went to the porch again and again to see how "our" dragonfly was getting along. I took dozens of photos, most of which were blurred in the dim light, and the awkward way I had to position the camera.

I didn't want to risk touching the insect with the close-focus lens -- emergence from the husk (called an "exuvia", by the way) leaves the bug very soft and vulnerable. If it tried to fly away too soon, one of our scrub jays would find it and eat it in seconds.

At last, on one of our visits, we saw that the dragonfly had unfolded its wings and held them out to the side. The abdomen was thinner, the color of the body darker. The time was at hand.

And then the bug was gone, and I was able to get very close in with my lens and take a picture of the exuvia.

Little filaments were visible, but I was not able to find a single reference on the web to tell me what they were.

The husk clung the wall outside the door for months, a reminder of the fantastic "birth" we were allowed to witness, and a testament to the peculiarity and complexity of Life.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-01-26
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