You might have seen dragonflies or damselflies (Order Odonata), either perching, or in flight, coupled together in what is described as the “wheel position”.
Green hooktails (Paragomphus genei)
You have probably deduced, correctly, that this is dragonflies’ method of mating, but have been unable from your observations to work out the rules of the game.
The simplified version of a complex process is as follows.
When he starts to feel frisky, the male dragonfly produces sperm from his primary reproductive organ, which is located near the tip of his abdomen (“tail”). He then bends his abdomen forwards and stores the sperm in a secondary reproductive organ located under the abdomen just behind the thorax. Thus primed, he looks for a suitable mate, which usually, as most dragonflies are territorial, involves waiting until one comes within range.
He then flies off and grabs her, clasping a special slot just behind her head with the pincer-like appendages at the end of his abdomen. The female bends her abdomen forward to engage her reproductive organ, located at the tip of her abdomen, with the male’s.
Wandering gliders (Pantala flavescens)
This is the wheel position mentioned above and as the male appendage and female slot are exactly matched no cross-species mating is possible. In this position she extracts the sperm, and stores it in her reproductive apparatus.
Soon after copulation, in most species the female lays eggs by depositing them through the water surface, fertilizing each one with the stored sperm as she does so. (Other dragonflies and most damselflies lay their eggs in the stems of aquatic water plants). But here’s the sneaky bit. The male’s reproductive organ is armed with a kind of hook which clears out the sperm of any male which has previously mated with the female before depositing his own, thus thwarting the ambitions of any rival.
In some species the male keeps the female firmly clasped while she lays her eggs. In others, the male can be seen hovering just above the female to ward off competitors. But in either case, a stronger male might drive the incumbent off and mate with the female, thus ensuring that the stronger genes are passed to the next generation.
I get tired just writing this. I’m glad I’m not a dragonfly!
Ed’s Note: Story and photo’s provided by Roger Mayes (VM58), and as can be seen by the photo below, taking pictures of the “Small Stuff” is not your normal “Sit in the air-conditioned car” activity, you really have to get down and dirty.
Small Stuff photographers in action.