Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Is that a Dragonfly or an Odonate?

I frequently use the term “odonate”; sometimes it’s “dragonfly”; sometimes “damselfly”. Probably not everyone understands the distinction between these labels, so I hope this post will clear things up. Let’s look at these terms and others just to make sure we’re all on the same page:

Odonata: This is the taxonomic order which encompasses dragonflies and damselflies. It essentially means “toothed ones” referring to their strong, sharp mandibles. This term can be modified to “odonatology” (the study of Odonata) and “odonatologist” (one who studies Odonata).

Odonate: A general term for any insect in the order Odonata. I try to use this term when I speak of dragonflies and damselflies collectively or when I’m talking about particular species ambiguously. An “odonatist” is one who has an interest in odonates.

A male Eight-spotted Skimmer (Libellula forensis).
This is an odonate and a dragonfly.
Dragonfly: This term can be confusing since it may be used in a strict sense or a loose sense. In the strict sense it refers specifically to those odonates in the suborder Anisoptera—these are the classic dragonflies (like the Skimmer at right) and it excludes damselflies. You could also say “anisopteran”, but that’s pretty techy for laypeople. In the loose sense “dragonfly” is synonymous with “odonate”, so inclusive of damselflies.

I try to avoid using this term in the loose sense, but sometimes it’s just quicker than  saying “dragonflies and damselflies” when I’m amongst company who may not understand “odonates”. When browsing book titles on “dragonflies” keep in mind that it may or may not include damselflies. The name of this blog, Northwest Dragonflier, is in the loose sense since Northwest Odonater or Northwest Odonatist 
A male Tule Bluet (Enallagma carunculatum).
This is an odonate and a damselfly. Sometimes
it’s a dragonfly depending on the speaker/writer.
wouldn’t mean anything to many potential readers, and Northwest Dragonflier and Damselflier is just unwieldy in my opinion.

Damselfly: This one is much simpler since it only refers to odonates in the suborder Zygoptera (the damselflies, like the Bluet at right) and never includes dragonflies (in the strict sense). Just as you can with the other suborder, you can get technical and say “zygopteran” if you want to put a puzzled look on the faces of your uninitiated friends which is always fun.

So the title of this post is a bit of a joke since dragonflies are odonates and odonates are dragonflies—in the loose sense, anyway.