I took these photos of spreadwings on a rope hanging from a massive cottonwood tree at the town pond this time last year. Terry and Louis, our son from Rwanda, and I were there having a picnic. They were the only dragonflies I saw that day, and the last of the year. Technically, spreadwings are of the suborder, Zygoptera(damselflies). This and Anisoptera (dragonflies) are the two suborders of the order Odonata which with butterflies, bees, mosquitos and a dozen other orders, make up Insecta, a key branch on the Tree of Life. With their big blue eyes and slender abdomens, spreadwings do seem more like damselflies than dragonflies. Except that they don’t perch with their wings closed, paralleled back along their abdomens, the main trait differentiating damselflies and dragonflies. Instead, they hold their wings spread out, relaxed, but not perpendicular or angled forward like Anisoptera. To me they seem to occupy their own suborder. These can only be Great Spreadwings (Archilestes grandis) because they are a) indeed ‘great’, b) larger by far than any other spreadwing or damselfly species at 60 mm in length; and c) known to be common in southeastern Utah this time of year. I’d only ever seen them late like this, and only hanging from low lying willows, never from a rope. Although I didn’t see them fly that day, my impression is that they are more gangly in flight, not as precise as other Odonates.
At the pond yesterday, there were no spreadwings. Due perhaps to the short but intense thunderstorm, there were no insects or birds. I thought back to last year. I’d photographed the spreadwings on the rope and we’d relaxed and began to snack, when Louis screamed ‘snake’. I’m not kidding, he shrieked, shattering the silence.He thought he saw a snake in the water. Having grown up in Rwanda where snakes kill people, instinctually responding to one is a survival mechanism. Humans have always encountered poisonous snakes and respond instinctually to them. Humans have always encountered dragonflies and respond instinctually to them. The difference may be that a life-saving instinct is stronger. I’m trying to figure this out.