In the 40° heat of noon - (104°F) a gentle breeze rustles the regimented stands of reeds so characteristic of the al-Hasa Oasis in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. Then, on a shrub, there is a flicker of color and a whisper of movement as a tiny but terrifying creature moves suddenly, and rays of scattered sunlight cascade from two pairs of shiny wings on a slim, bright red body, and from enormous red and blue eyes as fierce as a dragon's in an ancient legend.
That’s not a wild simile. It is a dragon - a dragonfly - and in other times the dragonfly, Odonata, which pre-dates the dinosaur, was proportionately as dangerous as the dragon of mythology. Fossil remains from the Carboniferous period, 300 million years ago, show giants with 70-centimeter wingspans (28 inches), the largest flying insects that ever lived. Even today, in fact, the dragonfly can eat its own weight in 30 minutes.
The dragon fly is a complex creature. Almost the entire head is occupied by two enormous eyes, highly sensitive to movement and able to track prey and predators at some distance. Indeed, in some species the eyesight is so good they often fly at night; one species in Java has even become completely nocturnal.
Certain types of dragonfly - such as the Arabian Emperor (Anax parthenope) — constantly patrol a given territory in which they intercept potential victims, such as flies, and eat them on the wing, but most, like the Crimson Darter (Crocothemis servilia) and Purple-blushed Darter (Trithemis annulata) perch upon some sunny prominence whence they seize smaller insects or chase away competitors. Aerial dogfights are common, with the victor claiming the hunting ground after a noisy clash of wings.
Skilled fliers, they have four nearly equally sized wings which seem fragile but are, in fact, reinforced by a fine network of tubular veins. Unlike those of nearly all other insects, they're attached directly to the body's flight muscles. When the dragonfly is hovering or flying slowly forwards or backwards, each pair beats alternately to produce a characteristic rustling sound as they rub against one another. At high speed, which can exceed 80 kmh (50 mph), both pairs beat in silent unison.
In Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf, the dragonfly has need of flying skills; dependent on often temporary water bodies in which to breed, many species must undertake long migrations. Each March and April, islands in the Gulf are often inundated by swarms of dragonflies on their way north, especially the Desert Darter (Selysiothemis nigra) and Arabian Emperor, many migrating during the hours of darkness.
Water plays a large part in the life cycle of the dragonfly and almost every water body has its complement of living jewels cavorting over it. Few people, admittedly, associate Arabia with water; yet there are numerous oases, waterholes and rockface trickles to be found there - which support diverse dragonfly fauna: some 22 species, ranging from the Giant Emperor dragonfly (Anaximpemtor) of Northern Oman with its 15 centimeter wingspan, to the diminutive 3 centimeter Layla Damselfly (Enallagma vansomereni) of central Saudi Arabia. Indeed, so extensive are the oases of eastern Saudi Arabia that one species, the Scarlet Darter (Crocothemis chaldaeorum), appears to have evolved in isolation there.
Some species breed in algae-overgrown channels in dark, cool oases, where, from eggs laid underwater, tiny nymphs, or naiads, are hatched. Though wingless, these nymphs have gills and are every bit as ferocious as their elders. Once mature, a nymph will crawl slowly out from the water to hang motionless on some vertical surface until gradually the back splits and a soft, pale adult emerges, its wings crumpled and small. Then, as blood is pumped into them, the wings grow and harden and it takes flight.
Considering their ferocious appearance and habits, it is not surprising that they have given rise to strange tales. In rural England - and urban New England - dragonflies were often known as "Darning Needles" or "Sewing Needles," because, everyone thought, they were capable of sewing up the eyes, ears and mouths of children. In al-Hasa and the eastern part of Saudia Arabia, however, the tradition is mellower. In Arabic ya'sub, the dragonfly is known affectionally as Abu-Bashir, "the bearer of good news."
A. R. Pittaway is a graduate entomologist who has spent many years working in the Arabian Peninsula.