Wild species 2010: chapter 11

Insects: Odonates

In the Wild Species 2010 report, 10 specific groups of insects have been studied, including odonates, predaceous diving beetles, ground beetles, lady beetles, bumblebees, black flies, horse flies, mosquities, some selected macromoths, and the butterflies. The National General Status Working Group has done assessments for these species and the results are presented in specific sections for each group of insects.


Odonata - Order of insects that includes the dragonflies and damselflies. They are winged, carnivorous insects with brilliant metallic colouring, whose eggs are laid in water and which develop through an aquatic nymph (larval) stage.

Photo showing the dorsal view of a Pygmy Snaketail (Dragonfly) resting on a stem
Photo: Pygmy Snaketail, Ophiogomphus howei © Denis Doucet

Quick facts


The order Odonata is divided into three sub-orders: the damselflies or Zygoptera; the dragonflies or Anisoptera; and the Anisozygoptera, which is represented by two living species, both found in Asia. Canada has a total of 211 odonate species, including 57 species of damselflies and 154 species of dragonflies. All odonates have two pairs of wings, long, slender bodies and large eyes. Dragonflies are usually larger and sturdier than damselflies, and tend to spread their wings horizontally at rest, whereas damselflies hold their wings pressed together over their back or only partly spread. Odonates depend on fresh water for successful reproduction and are found close to freshwater habitats of many different types, from tiny streams to bogs, marshes, fens, swamps and large rivers and lakes.

The odonate life cycle has three distinct phases: egg, larva and adult. Eggs are laid in or close to fresh water and hatch into aquatic larvae, which breathe using gills. The gills of dragonfly larvae are located in the rectal chamber, at the end of the digestive system. By squirting water through their gills, dragonfly larvae can use jet-propulsion to travel through the water. Damselfly larvae are more slender and appear more elegant than dragonfly larvae. They breathe with external gills, which look like feathers extending from the tip of the abdomen. One of the most unusual features of odonate larvae is the large, hinged lower lip, or labium. The labium acts rather like a grappling hook, shooting out at lightning speed to capture prey with dagger-like hooks. This unique capture device allows odonate larvae to be highly successful predators, feeding on a variety of aquatic organisms including other insects and even small fish. Odonate larvae in turn provide food for an amazing range of animals, from fish and crayfish to birds such as ducks.

Depending on the species, odonate larvae live in the water for less than two months to more than five years. When the larva is mature it climbs out of the water, often onto a piece of emergent vegetation. In a dramatic metamorphosis, the larval exoskeleton splits open along the head and the top of the thorax and the adult dragonfly emerges from its larval skin. Once emerged, the adult rests while its wings dry and expand. Then it takes flight for the first time, leaving behind the larval skin or exuvia. After emerging, the adults usually spend a period of days or weeks resting, hunting and gaining weight in upland habitat, before returning to the water to breed. During their time away from the water, adults become sexually mature and their colours change, often becoming brighter and more striking.

Like the larvae, adult odonates are voracious predators, preying on flying insects including mosquitoes, midges and even other odonates. Their success as predators is due to their acute vision and their speed and manoeuvrability in the air. Odonates are extremely well adapted to flying and can catch prey, eat, mate and lay eggs while in flight. Large dragonflies have been reported to reach speeds in excess of 50 km per hour! The adult stage is typically the shortest stage of the life cycle, usually lasting only a few weeks. No odonates over-winter as adults in Canada, but at least two species are migratory.

Odonates breed in a wide variety of aquatic habitats. Their distribution is dependent on a number of factors including acidity of the water, water flow, vegetation, substrate type, competition from other organisms, predation, disturbance and pollution levels. Generalist species, which are able to survive in a variety of habitats, tend to be widely distributed. Specialist species that have specific habitat requirements (such as the Pygmy Clubtail (Ophiogomphus howei), a species of clear, fast-flowing streams) tend to have sparser, more localized distributions. This can make specialist species vulnerable to population declines as a result of habitat disturbance and destruction.

The odonates are a fascinating group of insects that has been attracting increasing attention in recent years from both professionals and amateurs, including children, as demonstrated by the increasing number of scientific and popular publications devoted to odonates. Odonates are both beautiful and interesting to observe with their complex behaviours and striking colours. There is even a colourful diversity in the intriguing common names of odonates, such as River Jewelwing (Calopteryx aequabilis), Umber Shadowdragon (Neurocordulia obsoleta) and Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta). Because odonates are predatory and voracious, and are in turn, important prey items for fish and birds, they play an important role in the ecosystems in which they live. Some species of odonates are sensitive to water quality, potentially making them important environmental indicators.

Status of knowledge

The odonates are one of our best-known insect groups, but the life history, distribution and habitat requirements of many species of Canadian odonates are poorly understood. Without this basic knowledge, it will be difficult to determine population trends or to prevent population declines or extinctions.

Over the past decade, odonate surveys have improved the knowledge of odonate habitat and distribution in a number of provinces and territories. For example, prior to 1995, the Quebec Emerald (Somatochlora brevicincta) was known only from a few isolated peatlands in Quebec, but has now been found in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and British Columbia. This is probably not a recent range expansion; rather, new surveys and a better understanding of its ecology have led to its discovery in new locations. Similarly, recent surveys in the Northwest Territories added five species of odonates to the territorial species list.

In the future, systematic surveys, long-term monitoring and focused research projects into biology, life history, threats and other relevant questions will be necessary to improve knowledge of Canadian odonates. This will be particularly important in the north, where odonates are poorly known. Ongoing volunteer projects, such as the Ontario Odonata Survey and Atlas and the Manitoba Dragonfly Survey will be important in providing long-term information on the distribution and biology of odonates. The results of this general status assessment have aided the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in prioritising odonate species for detailed COSEWIC status assessments, which will examine the status of some species currently ranked as May Be At Risk in greater details.

Richness and diversity in Canada

Within Canada, odonate species richness is highest in the eastern provinces, from Nova Scotia to Ontario (figure 11), particularly in Ontario, where 172 of Canada’s 211 species of odonates can be found, including a new breeding species since the last assessment. Although species richness is lower in the north than in southern Canada, the abundant, pristine wetlands of the north provide widespread and varied habitats for northern species, such as the Treeline Emerald (Somatochlora sahlbergi), which is found only in the Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada. All the odonates known from Canada have also been found in other countries.

Species spotlight - Broadtailed Shadowdragon

Scientists are well aware that the earth’s species have not all been discovered or named, but in 1993 a Canadian field biologist reduced the number of species left to be discovered by one. On the Canoose Stream in southwest New Brunswick, Paul-Michael Brunelle came across an exuvia that he couldn’t identify. Exuviae are left behind when a larva metamorphoses into an adult odonate and are useful in identifying odonates. Despite the involvement of several experts, the species still could not be identified. The next year, adult males and females of an unknown species were found in the same location, further deepening the mystery. Finally, in 1996, the unknown adults were seen emerging from the unknown exuviae and it was confirmed that both were of the same, new, species, later named Broadtailed Shadowdragon (Neurocordulia michaeli). An easily overlooked species that flies only at dusk, the Broadtailed Shadowdragon has since been found in Maine, and Ontario. Broadtailed Shadowdragon has now a Canada General Status Rank (Canada rank) of Secure.

The opportunity to make new discoveries, such as this, is one aspect that attracts enthusiasts to the study of odonates. New county records of odonates are regularly reported, and new provincial and territorial records are not unusual, but the discovery of a new species is a thrill few people can hope to experience in their lifetime.

Species spotlight - River Jewelwing

Reaching lengths of over 5 cm, the River Jewelwing (Calopteryx aequabilis) is one of Canada’s largest damselflies, and also one of the most spectacular. The River Jewelwing (Canada rank: Secure) is found in all the provinces and in the Northwest Territories. Commonly found along the shores of rivers and large creeks, this damselfly has a beautiful, butterfly-like flight.

Female River Jewelwings lay their eggs in the stems of submerged aquatic vegetation, 30 cm or more below the surface of the water; females can remain submerged for half an hour or more, while laying their eggs! Once hatched, the larvae spend at least two years in the water, before metamorphosing into adults. Adult River Jewelwings are distinguished by their spectacular metallic green bodies and their broad wings, which appear as if the outer half has been dipped in black ink. Adult females spend much of their time foraging in upland habitat and only return to the water to mate and lay eggs. Males however, spend most of their time defending their territories along the banks of rivers and large creeks. Once a female enters a male’s territory, the male initiates an elaborate courtship dance. First, the male conducts a display flight over a potential egg-laying site in his territory. The flight displays the handsome markings on the hind wings and this may assure the female that he is of the correct species and a suitable mate. Next the male hovers in front of the female, until she allows him to mate. Finally, the female lays her eggs and the life cycle begins again.

The combination of being easy to observe and manipulate, together with a wide distribution and complex behaviour patterns, make these damselflies an excellent study species for a range of behavioural and ecological questions. River Jewelwings have taught scientists much about damselfly movement through upland habitat, courtship behaviour, and species discrimination during courtship. For both amateurs and professionals, these beautiful damselflies are endlessly fascinating to observe.

Results of general status assessment

The report Wild Species 2010 marks the second national assessment for odonates. The rankings for odonates were finished in November 2009 and reflect data available up to that time. The majority of Canada’s 211 odonates have Canada ranks of Secure (155 species, 74%, figure 11 and table 15). Twenty species have Canada ranks of Sensitive (9%), 22 species have Canada ranks of May Be At Risk (10%) and one species, the Rapids Clubtail (Gomphus quadricolor) is At Risk based on a COSEWIC assessment in 2008 of Endangered. This was the first year that COSEWIC assessed odonates.

Eleven species of odonates have Canada ranks of Undetermined (5%), but this proportion is much higher in some provinces and territories, reflecting a need for increased survey effort. Finally, two species have Canada ranks of Accidental (1%).

Figure 11. Results of the general status assessments for odonate species in Canada in the Wild Species 2010 report.
bar graph (see long description below)
Long description for Figure 11

Figure 11 shows the results of the general status assessments for odonate species in Canada in the Wild Species 2010 report. The bar graph shows the number of odonate species ranked as Extinct, Extirpated, At Risk, May Be At Risk, Sensitive, Secure, Undetermined, Not assessed, Exotic, and Accidental in Canada, each province and territory and the 4 oceanic regions. Of the 211 species occurring in Canada, 1 was ranked as At Risk, 22 as May Be at Risk, 20 as Sensitive, 155 as Secure, 11 as Undetermined and 2 as Accidental. Of the 40 species occurring in the Yukon, 8 were ranked as May Be at Risk, 11 as Sensitive and 21 as Secure. Of the 41 species occurring in the Northwest Territories, 3 were ranked as May Be at Risk, 1 as Sensitive, 31 as Secure and 6 as Undetermined. Of the 5 species occurring in Nunavut, all 5 were ranked as Undetermined. Of the 87 species occurring in British Columbia, 9 were ranked as May Be at Risk, 11 as Sensitive, 66 as Secure and 1 as Accidental. Of the 70 species occurring in Alberta, 16 were ranked as Sensitive, 42 as Secure, 11 as Undetermined and 1 as Accidental. Of the 78 species occurring in Saskatchewan, 1 was ranked as Sensitive, 56 as Secure and 21 as Undetermined. Of the 95 species occurring in Manitoba, 33 were ranked as May Be at Risk, 10 as Sensitive, 35 as Secure, 13 as Undetermined, 1 as Not Assessed and 3 as Accidental. Of the 172 species occurring in Ontario, 1 was ranked as At Risk, 30 as May Be at Risk, 32 as Sensitive, 101 as Secure, 5 as Undetermined and 3 as Accidental. Of the 140 species occurring in Quebec, 10 were ranked as May Be at Risk, 22 as Sensitive, 102 as Secure, 3 as Undetermined and 3 as Accidental. Of the 133 species occurring in New Brunswick, 7 were ranked as May Be at Risk, 6 as Sensitive, 100 as Secure, 17 as Undetermined and 3 as Accidental. Of the 123 species occurring in Nova Scotia, 16 were ranked as May Be at Risk, 10 as Sensitive, 86 as Secure, 10 as Undetermined and 1 as Accidental. Of the 71 species occurring in Prince Edward Island, 22 were ranked as May Be at Risk, 6 as Sensitive, 36 as Secure, 6 as Undetermined and 1 as Accidental. Of the 40 species occurring in Newfoundland and Labrador, 16 were ranked as Secure, 23 as Undetermined and 1 as Accidental. There were no species listed as occurring in the oceanic regions.

Comparison with previous Wild Species reports

In general, the 2010 assessment resulted in fewer species that were identified as May Be At Risk or Sensitive and an increase in the number of species ranked as Secure (table 15). A total of 25 species had a change in their Canada rank since the last assessment. Among these changes, one species had an increased level of risk, 14 species had a reduced level of risk, six species were changed from or to the rank Undetermined, three species were added and one species was deleted. In most cases, this is not an indication of a biological change, but of an increase in survey effort (table 16). The accuracy of the assessments has increased with the greater survey effort, meaning that the remaining species with some category of risk assigned will be more likely to be at risk and will be more likely to require some attention.

Table 15. Changes in the number of odonate species over time in each rank category as determined by the National General Status Working Group.
Canada rank Wild Species reports 2000 Wild Species reports 2005 Wild Species reports 2010 Average change between reports Total change since first report
0 Extinct/Extirpated - 0
- Stable
1 At Risk - 0
- +1 species
2 May Be At Risk - 28
- -6 species
3 Sensitive - 27
- -7 species
4 Secure - 145
- +10 species
5 Undetermined - 7
- +4 species
6 Not Assessed - 0
- Stable
7 Exotic - 0
- Stable
8 Accidental - 2
- Stable
Total - 209
- +2 species


Table 16. Reasons for changes in the status of odonate species between the last assessment and the current report.
Scientific name English name 2005
Canada rank
Canada rank
for change
Archilestes grandis Great Spreadwing 5 2 (I) Improved knowledge of the species; it is now known to breed in Ontario.
Agrigomphus villosipes Unicorn Clubtail 2 3 (I) Surveys over the past few years have resulted in additional locations for the species.
Celithemis eponina Halloween Pennant 3 4 (I) Survey work over the past few years has increased the number of known sites for this species.
Celithemis martha Martha’s Pennant 5 4 (I) Improved knowledge of the species.
Enallagma anna River Bluet 3 5 (P) Change due to procedural changes.
Enallagma minusculum Little Bluet 3 4 (I) Improved knowledge of the species.
Erythrodiplax berenice Seaside Dragonlet 2 3 (I) Improved knowledge of the species.
Gomphaeschna furcillata Harlequin Darner 2 3 (I) Survey work over the past few years has increased the number of known sites.
Gomphus abbreviatus Spine-crowned Clubtail 2 4 (I) There have been additional surveys and new records for this species.
Gomphus quadricolor Rapids Clubtail 2 1 (C) This species is now listed by COSEWIC as Endangered.
Ischnura damula Plains Forktail 3 4 (I) Considered Secure after extensive surveys.
Ischnura hastata Citrine Forktail 2 5 (B) It now appears as if this species is an irregular breeding immigrant to Ontario.
Lanthus vernalis Southern Pygmy Clubtail - 5 (I) New species, known from one locality in NB.
Lestes australis Southern Spreadwing - 5 (T) This taxon was recently elevated to the species level.
Lestes vigilax Swamp Spreadwing 3 4 (I) Survey work over the past few years has increased the number of known sites for this species.
Neurocordulia michaeli Broadtailed Shadowdragon 3 4 (I) New records over an increased range.
Neurocordulia obsoleta Umber Shadowdragon 2 5 (E) Previous record based on misidentification; still believed to occur, but status is unknown.
Ophiogomphus anomalus Extra-striped Snaketail 3 4 (I) Increased survey effort has found this species in more locations.
Perithemis tenera Eastern Amberwing 3 4 (I) Survey work over the past few years has increased the number of known sites for this species.
Somatochlora brevicincta Quebec Emerald 3 5 (P) Change due to procedural changes.
Somatochlora ensigera Plains Emerald 2 3 (I) Ranked as Sensitive after extensive surveys.
Somatochlora hineana Hines’ Emerald - 2 (I) This species was discovered new to Ontario and Canada in 2007.
Somatochlora tenebrosa Clamp-tipped Emerald 3 4 (I) Improved knowledge of the species.
Sympetrum occidentale Western Meadowhawk 4 - (T) Now considered to be part of Sympetrum semicinctum.
Williamsonia fletcheri Ebony Boghaunter 3 4 (I) Improved knowledge of the species; ranked as secure in New Brunswick.

Threats to Canadian odonates

In order to successfully complete their life cycle, odonates require both aquatic and terrestrial habitats, and are therefore potentially vulnerable to habitat degradation and destruction both on land and in the water. In aquatic systems, destruction and degradation of wetlands, damming and channelling of rivers and streams, and water pollution can all negatively impact odonate populations. Recreational use of waterways can reduce the abundance and diversity of odonates, since boat wakes can kill individuals during the vulnerable emergence period. Odonates are also vulnerable to ecosystem changes resulting from invasion of exotic species. Modifications to land adjacent to aquatic habitat can affect odonates directly, by degrading the upland habitat they use to mature and hunt, and indirectly by affecting water quality.


This general status assessment shows that although almost three-quarters of Canada’s odonates have a Canada rank of Secure, 10% are ranked May Be At Risk. Odonates and insects generally have not received as much attention from biologists and conservationists as well-studied groups, like birds and mammals – but it is increasing, particularly for the odonates. This general status assessment was made possible by the cooperative contributions of both amateur and professional field biologists, and has aided COSEWIC in selecting a number of priority species for detailed status assessments. Detailed COSEWIC assessments will consolidate our knowledge of species ranked as May Be At Risk, while amateur and professional field biologists across the country will continue to improve our knowledge of the life history and distribution of odonates in Canada. The vast area of Canada where no one has ever looked for odonates makes the discovery of a new species a thrilling possibility!

Further information

Cannings, R. 2002. Introducing the dragonflies of British Columbia and the Yukon. Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria: 96 pp.

Cannings, R. 2004. Resources for the study of Odonata in Canada. Newsletter of the Biological Survey of Canada (Terrestrial Arthropods) 23: (Accessed February 26, 2010).

Cannings, R. A. and Stuart, K. M. 1977. The dragonflies of British Columbia. British Columbia Provincial Museum Handbook; no. 35. British Columbia Provincial Museum, Victoria: 256 pp.

Dunkle, S. W. 2000. Dragonflies through binoculars. Oxford University Press, New York: 266 pp.
Nikula, B. and J. Sones. 2002. Stokes beginners guide to dragonflies and damselflies. Little Brown and Co: 160 pp.

Pilon, J.-G. and Laglace, D. 1998. Les odonates du Québec. Entomofaune du Québec Inc. Chicoutimi, Québec: 367 pp.

Pratt, P. D. 2004. Regional lists of Ontario Odonata. (Accessed February 26, 2010).

Trueman, J. W. H. and Rowe, R. J. 2001. Odonata. (Accessed February 26, 2010).


Brunelle, P. 2000. A new species of Neurocordulia (Odonata: Anisoptera: Cordulidae) from eastern North America. The Canadian Entomologist 132:39-48.

Cannings, R. 2002. Rare dragonflies of British Columbia. B.C. Ministry of water, land and air protection, biodiversity branch and B.C. Ministry of sustainable resources management, Conservation Data Centre, Victoria: 6 pp.

Cannings, S. G. 2003. Status of River Jewelwing (Calopteryx aequabilis Say) in British Columbia. B.C. Ministry of water, land and air protection, biodiversity branch and B.C. Ministry of sustainable resources management, Conservation Data Centre, Victoria: 10 pp.

Catling, P. M., Cannings, R. A. and Brunelle, P. M. 2005. An annotated checklist of the Odonata of Canada. Bulletin of American Odonatology 9: 1-20.

Catling, P., Carriere, S., Johnson, D. and Fournier, M. 2004. Dragonflies of the Northwest Territories, Canada: New Records, ecological observations and a checklist. Argia 16: 9-13.

Catling, P. M., Hutchinson, R. and Ménard, B. 1996. Dragonflies and damselflies. In Assessment of species diversity in the mixedwood plains ecozone (I. M. Smith, editor). Ecological Monitoring and Assessment Network, Environment Canada. (Accessed April 9, 2010).

Lawrence, E. (editor). 1995. Henderson’s dictionary of biological terms. J. Wiley & Sons, New York: 693 pp.

Needham, J. G., Westfall, M. J. and May, M. L. 2000. Dragonflies of North America. Scientific Publishers, Gainesville: 939 pp.

Walker, E. M. 1953. The Odonata of Canada and Alaska, Volume 1. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario: 292 pp.

Walker, E. M. 1958. The Odonata of Canada and Alaska, Volume 2. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario: 318 pp.

Walker, E. M. and Corbet, P. S. 1975. The Odonata of Canada and Alaska, Volume 3. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Ontario: 308 pp.

Westfall, M. J. and May, M. L. 1996. Damselflies of North America. Scientific Publishers, Gainesville: 649 pp.

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