One of my most memorable encounters with dragonflies was the first and only time I saw a member of the genus Zenithoptera. I was in the Amazonian lowlands of Ecuador with a couple of friends walking into a sunny clearing with a low, boggy area. Around a small pool of water were these little dragonflies with stunning velvety blue upper wing surfaces. One of my companions had found this spot on a previous trip and wanted to share. The other trip mate told us later that he thought those little blue gems were butterflies and, while admitting that they were very beautiful, wondered why we were so intent on photographing them. He was shocked when he got a good look and realized that they were, in fact, odonates.
There are four recognized species of Zenithoptera which range over much of northern South America—one getting as far north as Costa Rica. The one species that I’ve seen (and the one pictured throughout this post) is Z. lanei and, besides Ecuador, is recorded from Peru, Brazil, Venezuela, Paraguay, and Argentina.
|Zenithoptera lanei. Top to bottom: male side view; |
male front view (looks like a flower to me); male
with wings raised; pair copulating.
Zenithoptera don’t always perch with the wings closed. During my brief experience with them in Ecuador they spent most of their perching time with the wings fully open (and actually drooping quite a bit like some dragonflies do, looking like flowers when viewed head-on) exposing that beautiful blue color, and only closed them occasionally for short periods. I don’t think anyone really knows why they do it. If the wings were kept closed most of the time I’d suspect it was to avoid being spotted by predators (particularly birds), but the ones I observed kept their wings open a majority of the time. To me it almost seemed to be a signal among the Zenithoptera, but what exactly was being signaled, if that’s what it was, is beyond me. Even pairs that were copulating alternated between open and closed wings. When the male closed his wings, the female’s head would be hidden. I wonder what she thought about that.
There is more Zenithoptera weirdness—are you sitting down? This next trick really blew my mind. I was photographing a female perching alongside the pool when she raised only the hind wings to the folded vertical position, but left the fore wings in the open position. After a couple of seconds the hind wings were dropped for a while just like the fore wings, then she did it again. She repeated this several times while we watched her, periodically raising only the hind wings for two or three seconds each time, and luckily I kept my head well enough to photograph each state.
|Female Zenithoptera lanei. All wings in the open position on the left; only the hind wings raised in|
the closed position on the right. What do you think she is doing?
If I was to pick one odonate as my favorite (as I did in a recent comment on The Dragonfly Woman’s blog), I would have to go with the beautiful, stunning, unusual Zenithoptera. I hope it isn’t too long before I see them again!
As Dennis Paulson points out in his comment, “zenith” in this case likely refers to the sky blue color of the wings, not the aiming of the wings toward the zenith of the sky. This makes sense considering that the describer, Selys, would not have seen these dragonflies in life. Thanks go to Dennis for setting me straight, but I think the behavior is very fitting of the name.