There Be Dragons…

Dragons do exist, and they’ve been around for over 300 million years! They might not breathe fire, but they do have six legs, four wings, and extremely keen eyesight. These mini dragons are carnivorous insects known as dragonflies (Anisoptera) and damselflies (Zygoptera), belonging to the insect Order Odonata. In general, dragonflies are larger than damselflies, and perch with their wings held out to the sides; whereas damselflies have slender bodies and fold their wings over their body when at rest.

These beautiful insects are also important monitors of water quality. They are sensitive to environmental changes and play key roles in both terrestrial and aquatic habitats. They are predators as both nymphs (their larval stage) and as adults, feeding on a variety of prey including nuisance species such as mosquitoes and biting flies. Spending most of their lives underwater in rivers, streams, ponds, and lakes, their presence in aquatic environments is an excellent measure of water quality as they require clean water to thrive.

Platycypha caligata — Dancing Jewel — OdonataMAPped by Rob Dickinson in Kranzkloof Nature Reserve

As adults, dragonflies and damselflies are expert fliers. They can fly straight up and down, hover like a helicopter and even mate mid-air! They are true acrobats of the air. There are few species in the animal kingdom that can match the Odonata for spectacular flying ability. Dragonflies have two sets of wings with muscles in the thorax that can work each wing independently. This allows them to change the angle of each wing and practice superior agility in the air.

In their aquatic larval/nymph stage, which can last up to two years, they prey on just about anything — tadpoles, mosquitoes, fish fry, other insect larvae and even each other! Dragonflies and damselflies are great helpers when it comes to mosquito control. A single adult dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitoes per day. It surely pays to keep these natural helpers around and thriving.

Anax imperator — Blue Emperor — OdonataMAPped by Desire Darling in Van Staden’s Nature Reserve, Port Elizabeth

So how can you help to protect these amazing little dragons? Water is a scarce and valuable resource in southern Africa. With the recent droughts and climate change, this has become even more evident. We need to protect southern Africa’s water resources and manage them carefully for the benefit of people and wildlife. OdonataMAP, the Atlas of African Odonata, has the resources to help in this regard. One of the goals of OdonataMAP (and the other projects in the Virtual Museum) is to promote an appreciation of nature and biodiversity conservation throughout Africa. The Virtual Museum provides a platform for members of the public to contribute to biodiversity conservation projects by taking photographs of animals and plants in the wild and submitting them to the Virtual Museum. These very important records help us to understand the distributions of species in Africa, how they are being impacted by urbanization, pollution, agriculture, climate change, and what conservation actions are needed to protect Africa’s precious biodiversity.

The Animal Demography Unit has produced some of the most important and influential publications for the conservation of birds, frogs, reptiles, butterflies and other animals in the southern African region. The projects are all still growing, and we would like to extend the reach of these projects to as many people as possible.

A collage of ADU publications

OdonataMAP, a project funded by the JRS Biodiversity Foundation is the Atlas of African Dragonflies and Damselflies. OdonataMAP has a vast data resource available for all to use and we would love to collaborate with anyone in helping to protect and monitor South Africa (and Africa’s) water resources. For more information and to see how you can contribute, please visit and

And remember, we can, and should, all do our part to make our gardens and urban areas more wildlife friendly. Choose not to use poisons and pesticides in and around your home. Plant indigenous plants in your garden. Create a mini “forest” in your garden, by planting various layers of vegetation. Our wild neighbours have to continually adapt to the fluctuating conditions of human urban landscapes, but we humans can make better choices with the products we buy and what we flush down the drain, and to live more consciously so that we have minimal impact on the lives of the wildlife that we share habitats with. Together we can strive to live in harmony with nature and its incredible biodiversity. Plant trees, create natural ponds in your garden, avoid using poisons, put up owl boxes and bee hotels — — these are just a few simple things that we can all do to help our wild neighbours.

Palpopleura lucia — Lucia Widow — OdonataMAPped by Daina Russell in Richards Bay
Megan Loftie-Eaton
Megan Loftie-Eaton
Megan is our communications, social media and citizen science coordinator. Prior to her work for the BDI, she coordinated OdonataMAP, the Atlas of African Odonata. A citizen science project run by the Animal Demography Unit, University of Cape Town and funded by the JRS Biodiversity Foundation. She also coordinated LepiMAP, which is the Atlas on African Lepidoptera. Megan is passionate about biodiversity conservation. She is a firm believer in the power of citizen science and getting the public involved in nature conservation.