Dragonflies playing dead and other baseline studies for our trip to Mars

I love the moist and humid 

of marshland,

watching

tall grasses break

the surface of water,

simply wondering

what fish must silver

the shallows

or what reptile

slither a shiver

down the spine ..

I took these photos while we walked the trail at Lobster Cove meadow and Appalachee preserves in Boothbay Harbor. They look like a poem. At 46.8-acres,  this preserve boasts of a freshwater wetland, large field and a quite densely forested upland [1] I loved every part of it and given half a chance, I would have perhaps spent my morning sitting by that soupy ferment of grass and sodden earth, creating botanical drawings or writing floral poetry ..

.. but this prose poem is really about dragonflies and a lyrical questioning of the viability of some species of the order Odonata, on planets that humankind propose to relocate to. Of what use then, is a dragonfly?

I'm hypnotized by the dragonfly's

agile life path 

or is it - a flight path? 


On taxonomy ~


Marsh trails at Lobster Cove,

court me in grass -

resigned they are,

to the trample of feet, 

or fate, in Maine,

land richly resplendent 

in the iridescence 

of one hundred and fifty five

species ---

emeralds, jewel wings, reds,

golds, pond damsels, 

darners, skimmers, hawkers,

predators, 

dragons that fly, 

and this isn't metaphor..



I flee to be happily feral 

in these teeming marshes,

soliloquising to this multitude.

This thick slice of populace,

if you police the species,

spawn irreverent ideas

of vagrants or migrants 

or residents. Of these

I ladle millions with simply 

the scoop of my hand, 

from a steamy soupy puddle.. 

Hundreds of dragonflies 

and damselflies,

are squadrons in the sky,

a flight arena weakening air.

They meld in a singular 

poetic brush stroke 

of airy romance

even as my botanical eye 

purloins them from a vast kingdom

to stricture within an Order, 

of specialised missions,

their godly wings for escort, 

or those that pivot 

to a singular pursuit

of combative intent 

and thus, genus is recruited 

to sub orders and 

other such self effacement

There are 155 species of Odonata in Maine which include the 112 of  Anisoptera,  which is comprised only of dragonflies. These hold their wings horizontal to the surface they alight upon, while damselflies (Zygoptera), hold them vertical, this being an important criterion besides the eyes, for easy differentiation between both, although they look quite similar.  Beyond that, you could mull over the variation of  corrugation patterns, the curvature of the various ridges and deep valleys on the plane of the wing membrane, or wing span and attached musculature while considering that individuals within the same species vary considerably as also, between the species. Yet, it was of great interest to me, that measurements based on the wing profiles from a single wing of very few dried specimens spearheaded whole studies and scientific hypotheses on the effect of these morphological characteristics on aerodynamics of the dragonfly. 

It’s a dragonfly, I want to know why it flies .. so ..

.

.

Now imagine this complex wing architecture, the attached musculature that enables the independent movement of each of the four wings and the aerodynamic magic that propels the dragonfly through three dimensional trajectories, through space. The ability to manoeuvre in a way that they can fly backwards without any added expense of energy, their speed, agility and their capacity to hover, aids them in their remarkable predatory routines. It makes my heart skip a bit when I understand they exclusively intercept other flying insects while in flight, perhaps like humans attempt to do in aerial combat. These remarkable creatures can cruise, pursue, intercept while on their territorial flights, in chasing others like them or in stalking prey and some can even fly in formation.

Flying is arduous and requires efficient management of energy. In extensive studies of the relationship between the wing planform of Odonata and aerodynamic efficiency during flapping flight, it was found that dragonflies must generate 221% of the power that would be necessary to produce the same lift with perfect aerodynamic efficiency (i.e. from an ideal ‘actuator disc’ or ‘lifting line’ in laboratory conditions). Damselflies, operate with a less efficient wing shape in comparison and have to generate 275% of the power that would be required under ideal conditions, simply to fly [6] The overarching question in these studies of wingspan efficiency is, why are insect wing shapes so variable. No one has yet discovered an optimal solution from the standpoint of aerodynamics as insects have several adaptive and non-adaptive factors that contribute to wing shape, and only some of these adaptations will have any aerodynamic or mechanical relevance.

Currently, no suitable wing model exists, to replicate what is experienced by the mechanosensors present on the wings of these living creatures, that are responsible for relaying sensory signals required to power a flight. Eliciting predictable and repeatable flight responses in laboratory conditions has been tricky as well, but most importantly, inorder to generalize and validate flight strategies in the real world, field recordings are essential, but we find that a reliable field data logger for Odonata is yet to be developed.

Thus it stands, we do not understand many things about dragonflies and there are several reasons to continue to study them, least of all that such research will advance humankind’s understanding of unsteady aerodynamics, flight control, sensory integration and the evolution of flight [6] but each dragonfly has its own unique functional design and form, therefore, the task of learning about the metabolic cost of flying to each organism and drawing conclusions thus about flight strategies, is much more complicated than it appears. Until now, no human to the best of my knowledge, has produced a successful dragonfly except for another dragonfly.

My need to know and understand arises as a matter of habit, marking with gravitas this breezy situation which sometimes, a marsh walk can be. When I excitedly tell my husband about surprising facts I come across , I mean, who can not notice the science of it on a leisurely walk .. he wonders the same as I, why one’s mind cannot quite exult and float, elated on fresh air and sunshine alone 😄 Well, I try …

.. not to think of some innovative blueprint for a new drone, designed perhaps like a dragonfly or a damselfly, or scientific research pondering the inefficiency of those horizontally or vertically held wings, that somehow refuse to be consistent in their shape and size [5] There I am, in a marsh, dragonflies in a flight arena of sky, exhibiting the same tendencies as the rest of the sentient species and I realise, there isn’t enough grass nor sky for everyone. There are entire societies at play here not to feel crowded out, and I, a bystander, looking from the outside at their arduous frolicking and wondering of the aggressive sexual behaviour of dragonflies that suddenly taints every romantic vision of earth and sky that I would like to weave into my marshy poetry. Somehow, writing lyrically of how happy I am to see dragonflies engaged in territorial displays over grass, is akin to admitting I enjoy bullfights or so I think and I laugh, for I do or maybe I don’t. In all seriousness though, it prods me to think of the limits of acceptance, a virtue we are smug to extol, or of the questions we are reluctant to frame …

Do you know how we map 

the flight of consciousness ?

I think that is what it is ..

the question I mean.


I wish I could veil my glance

in poetry, blissful membranous

euphemism, like lined coffins

for the dead but I would be

unfeeling not to notice

the corrugations in

those angelic wings.


Is everywhere the place

where the glade is pleasant,

the woods cheerful,

the waters run deep ?


Sometimes, all those things, yes 

and the female of the species

dropped dead. It startled me

from my airbrushed soliloquy, 

for blade strokes -

aerodynamic, iridescent

in a viridescent marsh,

had squelched irony

from the maw of design.


Nymphs in the shallows,

are a Neverland

of eternal childhood.

In the wake

of an artful airlift

for angelic pursuit,

are embattled skies

of conflictual ardour,

and comically painful

those cerci on neck ..


The kama sutra of aerodynamic love

yields outlines of hearts,

lyrical hymns to creatures

great, cherubic, winged,

but the females fake death

to squadrons of a militant

genetic drive.



Will we need dragonflies on Mars

with no oxygen nor water to monitor?

And what use a desultory

Martian anthropomorphisation

as it bites the barren of dust?


Each wingspan a solitary delight,

those 180 degree flips

three dimensional trajectories

of love, for survival of the species

through nicks and bruises ..

Mating in dragonflies is a unique affair in that it involves serious terms like tandem linkage and wheel formation and a great deal of aggression [7] It is highly acrobatic sport and eventually a mating pair forms this heart shape as in the picture above. The male first grabs a female by the back of her neck with claspers at the end of his abdomen that are called cerci which are structural appendages that actually fit into species-specific grooves in the female. Once this tandem linkage is established, the actual consummation takes place which is quite interesting but involves sexual gymnastics involving abdominal segments and appendages for scooping out of rival sperm, some vicious territoriality, pursuit of multiple suitors and a very tired female at the end [8] The high male-biased ratio in adult dragonflies at breeding habitats, has in part, contributed to females using different habitats to avoid male harassment.

Females of some species of dragonflies (Female moorland hawkers or Aeshna juncea for example) are vulnerable to being harassed when laying eggs since they aren’t protected by their male mates. This isn’t the case with all dragonflies but many of the species exhibit sexual conflict. In Moorland hawkers for instance, eggs are usually fertilised in a single sexual encounter with a male, and copulating again could damage their reproductive tract so after the act, females crash dive to the ground at very high speeds and fake death [9]

As I marvel at the dragonfly, I appreciate what humans can learn and possibly unlearn from our compatriots on this sometimes green and golden earth, while I question if there is more to the poetry of the species than simply one upmanship, mean spiritedness, lusty escapades, romantic illusions and other attributes of our inherent genetic propensity, that mainly drive every conflict, every conquest, every war and all tribalism.

How much of dragonfly do we wish to be, plainly rhetorical musing …

There were mushrooms too ..
I thought this looked like living sculpture ..

References:

[1]~https://www.mainetrailfinder.com/trails/trail/lobster-cove-meadow-and-appalachee-preserves

[2]~https://maineanencyclopedia.com/dragonflies/

[3](Gives a list of species found in Maine and their distribution) ~https://www.jstor.org/stable/3858343

[4]~https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/geb.12758

[5]~https://www.google.com/amp/s/phys.org/news/2014-11-secret-dragonflies-flight.amp

[6]~https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2015.0389

[7]~https://www.thoughtco.com/how-dragonflies-mate-1968255

[8]~https://www.livescience.com/43206-animal-sex-dragonflies.html

[9]~https://www.newscientist.com/article/2129185-female-dragonflies-fake-sudden-death-to-avoid-male-advances/