adult dragonfly

The older version has three body segments, like all insects: the head, thorax, and abdomen. It has six legs. It has two pairs of wings. Its huge, complex eyes are so close together on the top of its head, they touch. The colors of its body are brilliant.

dragonfly nymph

The younger version also has three body segments. It has six legs, too. However, its wings have not yet formed. Its eyes are set far apart. It’s not as colorful.

This is the same animalthe southern hawker dragonfly. You are just seeing it at different points of its life. 

If you look at them side-by-side, you might not know they are different versions of the same thing.

Insect Body Parts




Changes Ahead

All insects undergo metamorphosis as part of their life cycles. This is a process of change that takes place as an insect approaches adulthood. More than
80 percent of insects experience what is known as a complete metamorphosis.
Their bodies move through four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Dragonflies experience incomplete metamorphosis. Their bodies only go through three stages: egg, nymph, and adult. Dragonflies skip the pupa stagewhen many insects encase themselves in a chrysalis or cocoon. 

Southern hawkers are one of the most common and widespread dragonflies in Europe. They live near small ponds and open woodland. Each dragonfly begins life as an egg. 

After a male and female mate in late summer or early fall, the female lays her eggs inside the stems or leaves of a water plant to keep them safe from predators. She lays her eggs one at a time.

To hatch in the spring, the young dragonfly swallows water that it draws through tiny holes in the casing of the egg. That causes the egg to swell. The young dragonfly has a sharp pointer on its head, which it uses to burst the egg open. 

What emerges is called a prolarva. It is covered by a thin membrane. As soon as it frees itself from the membrane and enters the water, it molts, or sheds its skin. It is now a nymph.

Nymphs must molt a number of times as they grow. That’s because their outer layer, called an exoskeleton, cannot stretch or grow. When the insect gets too big for its skin, the skin splits open.

A southern hawker nymph's body is brown and green. These colors make the nymph harder to see in the water.

A southern hawker nymph moves underwater.

The nymph’s muscles contract. It takes deep breaths that cause the split in its old skin to widen. When the tear is big enough, the southern hawker shrugs out of the old skin. It’s like taking off a sweater. Now the dragonfly nymph is slightly larger. 

Molting is helpful in another way. It allows damaged tissue to heal and missing limbs to regenerate, or grow again. Yet, molting can be a dangerous time for the southern hawker. During the process, this insect cannot move. Its new skin is soft. Until the new exoskeleton hardens, the nymph is vulnerable to predators.

More Mobile

A dragonfly nymph can zip through the water. Believe it or not, it moves by squirting water out of its back end. This propels it forward. These rapid bursts of speed cause its sleek, torpedo-shaped body to glide. It needs to move quickly, because it is an active hunter. 

The nymph’s body is brown and green. These colors help it blend in with pond or lake water. It is difficult for both predators and prey to spot it. Yet, the nymph can see them quite well.

At this stage in its life, the southern hawker’s large eyes are set far apart. They are specialized to detect movement. Those eyes are constantly scanning for prey.

The nymph needs to eat constantly. What it is looking for is aquatic insects, small tadpoles, invertebrates, and even
small fish.

A southern hawker nymph's eyes are set far apart.