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How to Tell the Difference Between a Dragonfly and a Damselfly

First Step to Identify an Odonate

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Eastern pond hawk dragonfly

Eastern pond hawk dragonfly

Photo: © Susan Ellis, Bugwood.org

Dragonflies and damselflies both belong to the order Odonata. All odonates share certain characteristics, including membranous wings, large eyes, slender bodies, and small antennae. Conversely, there are clear differences between dragonflies and damselfies, outlined in the table below.

Knowing whether the odonate you've observed is a dragonfly or a damselfly will aid you in identifying the insect. For most people, learning the most obvious differences – eyes, body, wings, and resting position – will be sufficient. More serious students of the odonates will want to examine the subtle differences in wing cells and abdominal appendages.

Taxonomists divide the Odonata into three suborders: Zygoptera, the damselflies; Anisoptera, the dragonflies; and Anisozygoptera, a group somewhere in between the two. The Anisozygoptera suborder includes only one or two living odonates, and is not covered in this article.

Source: Dragonflies of the World, by Jill Silsby

Differences Between Dragonflies and Damselflies

CharacteristicDragonflyDamselfly
Eyesmost have eyes that touch, or nearly touch, at the top of the headeyes are clearly separated, usually appearing to each side of the head
Bodyusually stockyusually long and slender
Wing Shapedissimilar wing pairs, with hind wings broader at the baseall wings similar in shape
Position at Restwings held open, horizontally or downwardswings held closed, usually over abdomen
Discal Celldivided into trianglesundivided, quadrilateral
Male Appendagespair of superior anal appendages, single inferior appendagetwo pairs of anal appendages
Female Appendagesmost have vestigial ovipositorsfunctional ovipositors
Larvaebreathe through rectal tracheal gills; stocky bodiesbreathe through caudal gills; slender bodies
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