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Brainiac

Capturing the short, furious lives of dragonflies

Flame Skimmer, malePieter van Dokkum/Yale University Press

Dragonflies are conspicuous insects. They’re enormous, nimble, alien, ancient. But as Pieter van Dokkum’s sees it, they don’t get their due.

“There are many books on butterflies, even ants and beetles get a lot of attention. Dragonflies, I feel like they need an ambassador,” he says.

Thanks to van Dokkum, however, dragonflies are coming up. By day he is chair of the astronomy department at Yale University and an expert on the evolution of galaxies. In his spare time he brings his telephoto lens to ponds around New Haven where for the last decade he’s developed an intimate view of an insect that arrived on earth before the dinosaurs. Van Dokkum says that the more he’s looked, the more amazed he’s become.

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“Most insects, if you look at them closer, they become more gruesome,” he says. “But with dragonflies I find it’s the other way around, the closer you look, the more beautiful they get.”

Van Dokkum has collected his photographs in a new book, “Dragonflies,” that traces the formidable aerial predators through their life cycle. Dragonfly nymphs hatch from eggs underwater, climb vegetation to the surface, and crack open the skin around their bodies. In short order an adult dragonfly emerges, and over the years Van Dokkum has captured each stage in the process, which forms the first chapter of his book.

Later chapters show dragonflies in flight, focus on their eyes, depict them sluggish and covered in pre-dawn dew. There’s a chapter with images of dragonflies hunting (mosquitoes beware!) and one on reproduction. Copulating dragonflies form a mating wheel, abdomen-to-abdomen, often while flying. “It’s quite amazing, they form sort of a circle, and you have eight wings going and 12 legs,” says van Dokkum. He notes that they move erratically during the process, making it especially difficult to photograph, like an evolutionary plea for privacy.

There are some obvious parallels between van Dokkum’s professional work and his hobby. Both involve using powerful lenses to see objects that don’t give themselves up easily. (And, in fact, van Dokkum and a colleague recently built a telescope in New Mexico that he calls the “dragonfly array”.)

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There’s also the element of looking back in time. When light from galaxies reaches Earth, it’s old, a glimpse of the past. Dragonflies have been living the same short, furious lives for a long time. Look at them closely enough, and it starts to get hard to tell where you are.


Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Pieter van Dokkum’s name.