Orville and Wilbur Would Be Proud

While visiting Clemons Creek Wildlife & Recreation Area in Washington County, I saw something worth a photo: a dragonfly hanging in mid-air, with its wings perfectly still. Let me repeat that: it was airborne, stationary, and its wings were not moving. Of course, I missed the shot—good thing I don’t try to earn a living as a photographer! The dragonfly was one of the really large green types, probably the Green Darner (Anax junius), and it was beautiful. Sorry I missed my shot, but perhaps you’ll enjoy a photo of another species? I saw three other species at this site. This one I believe is a Widow Skimmer.

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The dragonfly flight I observed was a form of soaring, the insect using the strong, steady wind to provide lift. In a sense, it turned itself into a kite, holding its wings at an angle thereby creating a surface to ride the air currents. This brought to mind an audiobook My Better Half and I listened to on a recent road trip: The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (We recommend it!).  The book includes an excellent account of how the Wrights carefully observed animals (mostly birds) doing what I had observed in the dragonflies: subtly changing the shape and orientation of their wings, in order to maintain an orientation that allowed use of the wind for lift. This is what the Wright Brothers developed as “wing warping” which was later replaced with special wings-set-in-wings (ailerons). It is no coincidence that the Wright Brothers (who lived in Ohio) chose Kitty Hawk (North Carolina) to teach themselves to fly: it had long stretches of sand (for crashing/landing safely) and strong, steady, consistent winds (providing the necessary lift). They perfected wind-powered soaring and gliding, only later adding the artificial thrust of an engine.

DSC_0355Now, consider the tasks inherent in Dragonfly flight: not just soaring, but beating the wings for lift. Add on long-distance migrations; elaborate mating flights with the body connected to another individual; hovering in place over water while dipping down repeatedly to lay eggs. All while working in variable conditions of temperature (and being insects, they are poikilothermic “cold-blooded” animals), humidity, wind, and—oh yeah, keeping an eye out for predators. All in all, pretty impressive stuff. At least here at Clemons Creek, they have several fine wetlands from which to choose. A variety of sizes and water depths, some with snags (standing dead trees) and a mix of forest and prairie on-site. If you’re in Washington County, I’d recommend a visit. Tell the dragonflies I said hello…

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Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

3 thoughts on “Orville and Wilbur Would Be Proud”

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