Dragon-baby Zugunruhe

Dragonfly nursery at the beginning of autumn. (Photos by Robert Smith.)

Dragonfly larvae hide under leaves and debris to ambush prey — occasionally many times their size. Autumn is a restless time; in migratory animals it is known as zugunruhe. On the morning of September 30th we saw swarms of migratory dragonflies — darners, meadowhawks, wandering gliders — feeding in the throes of zugunruhe. But even for non-migratory species, autumn is an anxious time. Humans often feel this seasonal disquieting (I do!) and we have found that dragonfly larvae feed voraciously these days. Or so it seems.

Dragonflies and damselflies belong to the order Odonata and their larvae (naiads) possess a long and jointed labium with a spoon-like structure that opens into two sharp knife-like teeth. Odonate means “toothed-one” or “tooth-baby.” (This little one tried to eat a bullfrog tadpole in the holding bucket.) The labium can be examined by gently pulling it with a tweezers. The naiad above was admired, thanked and released unharmed.

Odonate larvae are often difficult to identify, but the bright green larvae of the Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) are distinctive. I spent a few mornings this week collecting and observing dragonfly larva and adults with photographer Robert Smith and filmmaker Emma Piper-Burket in Fremont County, Iowa. Of course we made time to write and read some poems.

Baby Dragon Zugunruhe*

Rattle-dragons the Odonates the tooth-babies so carnal as larva so carnival

as fliers the darners the meadowhawks the Halloween pennants come thin

days from fat-moons from muck wriggle forth naiads as our own days grow

shorter forgotten from whence we writhe and rise the time to stir to bite a

tadpole to fly, still somehow a zugunruhe for us. 

Filmmaker Emma Piper-Burket. Photo with Emma’s phone.

*prose-poem by Jack Phillips (Becoming a Naturalist, Part 58.)