December 22, 2012

Ode To The Dragonfly

You might think them a bit undeveloped, but new studies show that the dragonfly may have advanced attention skills to assist in target selection.

Dragonflies are remarkable insects in their respective part of the animal kingdom. While they may not compare well to the modern mountain lion, they possess incredibly adaptive traits for their environment. Large bulbous eyes giving 360-degree vision for predatory purposes, and thin light bodies for quick and swift flight are among these traits.

While we generally don’t center our group discussions on insects, it’s worth noting that new studies of the insect by David O’Carrol have shown that it has the ability to mentally lock on to its target, while ignoring everything else.

You might not think of this as truly fascinating, but you must consider the clues that this points to in terms of neuroscience and insects. During this study, O’Carrol used a very tiny glass probe that made examinations of the dragonfly’s brain possible. Usually a species does not have the ability to have such an acute eye for target lock on. Until recently we thought that this was attributed to the size of the brain.

We could take a look at the behavior of a cheetah in the African Sahara, an excellent example of the traditional predator. The cheetah waits patiently in tall grass for what can seem like hours to us. We at first think this is because the cheetah is waiting patiently for the right moment to strike, however it is due to the cheetah deciding on which target to go for. It should be a rather easy process, but the decision for a target lies solely in their observation skills.

The cheetah watches their nervous prey in the wild to be sure of a kill. They’re target locking skills are less than average and they usually don’t get a kill the first time. Now, while the cheetah takes a while to target lock, the dragonfly decides in less than a second.

This isn’t the only remarkable thing about them though. Dragonflies are not flies at all, actually. They’re an entirely different species of insect belonging to the Ordanta family. They are born without wings in ponds in their larvae stage, and crawl out of the water when that stage has reached its end. From here, their wings grow and harden in days. And then it’s time for the hunt!!!

Dragonflies have the ability to fly up and down, and even hover and mate in mid-air. They are thought of as masters of flight for their form and speed. In fact, the mechanics behind their flight abilities inspires aviation engineers to one day build planes modeled after them. The young ones have an appendage on their heads that help them catch prey in the water, which makes them great predators practically from birth.

Interestingly enough, the dragonfly is one of the earliest examples of evolved flying insects from ancient times, dating to over 300,000,000 years ago! Another startling fact about this is how small the insect is compared to its gigantic ancestors, which had 2-3 foot long wingspans, making them the largest flying insect ever. The reason for the shrinking in size is theorized to be a shortage of oxygen compared to the Paleozic era.

When you think about it, the depictions of oversized insects in films like “Land of the Lost” and “King Kong” are accurate, considering the era and location. If insects were that large back then, just imagine how big the mammals were!!!

Sadly, a dragonfly with its wings is a sign that it is approaching the endof its life, spending most of that life as a larva in water. The reason for having wings is specifically for mid-air mating. The longest life span in adulthood is recorded up to a year.

The advancements of such a remarkable insect astound me, only inspiring imagination for what advancements might be possible for humanity, or other species, for that matter. Psychic abilities, adjustments to dry and wet weather formations and webbed feet come to mind.

Who knows? We can only sit and watch.

Image Credit: StevenRussellSmithPhotos / Shutterstock

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