Variegated Meadowhawks In Tandem Position

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I’ve often written that I love dragonflies and their cousins, damselflies and spreadwings.  I find them not only to be beautiful and fun to photograph but  some of their behaviors, especially their reproductive behavior, are fascinating.  These insects have been around for about a quarter of a billion years — 250 times as long as humans have existed — and that’s given them a lot of time to evolve in some pretty amazing ways.

I obtained the following information from an excellent reference, A Field Guide to the Damselflies & Dragonflies of Arizona and Sonora, Bailowitz, Danforth, and Upton (2015). A male dragonfly has two sets of genitalia consisting of  a genital pore located near the tip of his abdomen and the secondary genitalia located closer to the beginning of his abdomen.  Just before mating, the male transfers sperm from his genital pore to his secondary genitalia.  He then locks his body to that of the female’s by using a specially designed organ at the tip of his abdomen to clasp the female at a specific receptor site just behind her head. The attached female curls her abdomen so that its tip attaches to the male’s secondary genitalia, whereupon she collects sperm from the male.  This phase of mating, with the two dragonflies joined in a heart-shaped or oval configuration, is referred to as the “heart” or “wheel” position.

Once sperm transfer is accomplished, the female immediately begins laying eggs.  That process consists of her flying low and slowly over the surface of a body of water and dipping the tip of her abdomen into the water for a fraction of a second while she ejects fertilized eggs.  She lays a few at a time, distributing her eggs over a fairly wide area.  Sometimes she and the male remain attached while she’s laying eggs.  This is referred to as the “tandem” position.  When the male and female are so attached they fly almost as one organism.

Yesterday, I was lucky to capture some images of a pair of dragonflies — Variegated Meadowhawks — flying in tandem.

Shown above, the brightly colored male is in front with the tip of his abdomen firmly attached to the female, just behind her eyes.  My shutter stopped the action of the dragonflies’ wings, but these insects are in flight, hovering just an inch or two above the surface of a pond at Whitewater Draw, about 70 miles southeast of Tucson.  I watched the female repeatedly dipping her abdomen into the water as this pair flew, laying her eggs.

Certainly, an incredibly intricate reproduction ritual, but it obviously works for the dragonflies.  Why do the insects continue to fly in tandem after they’ve mated?  I’ve read that the male remains attached to the female in order to ward off possible rival males who might also try to mate with her. I suppose it’s also possible that the two insects, so linked, may fly more efficiently during egg-laying than if the female attempted on her own the difficult maneuver of dipping her abdomen into the water while remaining airborne.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/1600.

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