Emperor Dragonfly eyesDuring a rare break in the rain, wind & gloom of the 2012 edition of a summer in Cornwall I popped down to Windmill Farm and found the dragonflies & damselflies well & truely making hay while the sun shone. The numbers involved were not as great as normal for the time of year, but by 2012 standards they were bouncing!


Sadly, although a welcome dose of sunshine was good news for both the insect & human strands of the web of life there was also a darker side to the day.

Female Emperor Dragonfly with it's head stuck in the exuviaWalking around the margins of the northern dragonfly scrapes shortly after midday I was surprised to see what I initially thought was a female Emperor Dragonfly - Anax imperator that had almost completed her emergence from larva to adult. However I quickly realised that the poor thing was stuck with it's head still in the exuvia, (the cast skin of the larva), and I assumed it was dead.

The abdomen, thorax & wings were all pumped up to full size and were as they should be, however the legs & head were stuck in the exuvia and all the adult's body had hardened in place. So the head was the same shape as the larva's with those beautiful eyes stranded inside, never seeing the light of day & unable to see as it bore it's former skin like some sort of hideous hat. The neck had become so stretched in it's efforts to pull free that it would never have had the balance to fly anyway, even if it could support it's head. And then I realised that far from being dead, the poor thing was alive.

Reluctantly I decided to put this unfortunate Empress out of her misery, not something I take lightly after a lifetime of admiring these stunning insects.
 
 
I guess that the unfortunate creature had probably started to emerge as the temperature dropped unexpectedly (because of the wind & rain) and lost the energy to pull it's head and legs clear before the rest of it's body went automatically into pump up mode, and from that moment on it was doomed. However it has to be said that the head is usually one of the first parts of the adult to be pulled clear from the confines of the larval skin.
 
Dragonfly geek that I am, I find these emergences that go so badly wrong deeply saddening as this particular species spends a year in the water as a larva (nymph) before emerging as an adult for an all too brief 6 weeks on the wing, if it's lucky. Having survived the egg stage and up to 15 moults it fell at the last hurdle.
 
So during this appalling summer spare a thought for the natural world and the life & death struggles of some of our most beautiful wildlife, the constant wind & rain has meant more than just a wrecked BBQ or two.
Failed emergence of a female Emperor Dragonfly