Dragonflies and damselflies

Dragonflies and damselflies are aquatic insects found in and around the freshwater streams of Australia. They are probably best known to fly fishing enthusiasts who tie flies to resemble both the flying adult and underwater nymphal life stages. Ecologically, they are an important dietary component of fishes in these streams, and their presence or absence in water bodies is used as a water quality indicator.

The aquatic nymphs (the immature stage of the life cycle) have cylindrical or somewhat flattened elongated bodies with large eyes. The hinged mouth parts can be shot rapidly forward to seize prey. Some of the larger nymphs are well known to anglers, who use them as bait and call them mud-eyes. The adults are vividly coloured strong fliers with large wings that actively hunt other insects during daylight hours.


Damselfly nymphs have a cylindrical abdomen with three leaf-like gills attached to the posterior end. They are found commonly in the still water of ponds and lakes among aquatic vegetation. They are distributed throughout Australia and are found in many other parts of the world. The nymphs capture a wide variety of small invertebrates.

Photo of a Damselfly nymph

Damselfly nymph
Photographers / Source: John Gooderham & Edward Tsyrlin

When adult damselflies are at rest, they hold their wings parallel to and above their abdomens. They are active predators and maintain territories near water bodies.

Photo of an adult damselfly

An adult damselfly
Photographers / Source: John Gooderham & Edward Tsyrlin


Dragonfly nymphs are often elongated, with flattened mouth parts beneath the head. The abdomen ends in a pyramidal structure rather than external gills (see photo). The gills are internal. Water is pumped through the gills and can be expelled as a jet from the abdomen, enabling the nymph to move rapidly. These nymphs are found in both still and running water, sometimes on the underside of boulders and cobbles in swift-flowing streams. The nymphs are predatory.

Photo of a Dragonfly nymph

Dragonfly nymph
Photographers / Source: John Gooderham & Edward Tsyrlin

The nymphs of both damselflies and dragonflies have aquatic life cycles that last for at least a few months, and more usually for a year. The adults are also quite long-lived and probably spend weeks to months in this phase of the life cycle in Victoria.

Photo of an adult dragonfly

An adult dragonfly
Photographer: Alan Henderson / Source: Minibeast Wildlife

The Dragonfly Life-cycle

Diagram showing the dragonfly life-cycle

A diagram showing the dragonfly life-cycle (anticlockwise from bottom): a nymph in the water, a nymph going through its final moult, a flying adult, a pair of mating adults and a female laying eggs.
Artist: Sharyn Madder / Source Museum Victoria

Adult dragonflies are generally more sturdily built than adult damselflies and when at rest hold their wings outstretched from their body. They are also active predators and are usually seen near water bodies.

Further Reading

Gooderham, J. & Tsyrlin, E. 2002. The Waterbug Book: A Guide to the Freshwater Macroinvertebrates of Temperate Australia. CSIRO.

Naumann, I. 1991. The Insects of Australia. CSIRO: Melbourne.

Watson, J., Theischinger, G. and Abbey, H. 1991. The Australian Dragonflies. A Guide to the Identification, Distribution and Habitats of Australian Odonata. CSIRO: Melbourne.

Williams, W. D. 1980. Australian Freshwater Life. The Invertebrates of Australian Inland Waters. MacMillan: Melbourne.

Comments (8)

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helen emeruwa 12 January, 2010 08:48
it is good
Trevor Merton 3 November, 2010 19:58
Thank you very much for your informed information. I get so much pleasre out of studying these insects. I have a large pond on my property and have been breeding tadpoles for a couple of years now. I now know perhaps why some are missing their tails...
kristin 25 January, 2011 16:48
thank you for this information, i have lots quetion about dragonfly, would you give another information about dragonfly, especially about how to identify and their behavior.
Discovery Centre 27 January, 2011 15:37
Hi Kristen - the Discovery Centre offers an identification service for insects, however we would need to see the insects first-hand or in a very clear photo to give you accurate information. You can contact the Discovery Centre via the 'Contact Us' section on the bottom of this page
David 2 February, 2011 17:39
Do any victorian dragon flies sting? If so, how bad is it - dangerous?
Discovery Centre 5 February, 2011 10:38
Hi David, dragonflies do not sting people, however they do have jaws and if you were to grab a dragonfly it may try to bite to get free.
Byron 11 February, 2011 08:53
Morning Folks, we had hundreds of dragonflies in our street in Moorabbin last night just before sunset. I was quite an amazing and beautiful site. One of my neighbours and I were standing in the street watching and two dragonflies stopped right in front of my face, hovering in mid air looking at me for about 10 seconds. It almost appeared as though they were checking me out and then suddenly they turned and left as quickly as they had stopped.
Carmen 12 February, 2014 10:18
Good Morning everyone, I saw hundreds of dragonflies on our property near Wodonga last night just before sunset, it was an amazing site to see, they were hovering around everywhere. I sat and watched them for hours until darkness set in, it was fantastic.
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