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What Are Dragonfly Nymphs?

Dragonfly nymphs are the fascinating aquatic larvae of dragonflies, living underwater for months, even years, before emerging as winged adults. These voracious predators play a crucial role in freshwater ecosystems, controlling mosquito populations. Their unique adaptations make them masters of their underwater realm. Curious about how these nymphs transform into the elegant dragonflies we see darting above ponds? Let's dive deeper.
Marjorie McAtee
Marjorie McAtee

Dragonfly nymphs are dragonflies that have not yet matured into adults. Dragonflies generally have what is known as an "incomplete metamorphosis" life cycle, because these insects do not generally have a larval stage. Instead, dragonfly nymphs hatch directly from the eggs. These nymphs typically live in water, and will periodically shed their skins as they mature. The average dragonfly nymph sheds its skin eight to 17 times during its maturation into an adult, which can take up to four years, depending on species.

Female dragonflies usually lay their eggs in the water, near the water, or in the stalks of aquatic plants. Often, the fertilizing male guards the female until the laying of eggs is complete. While most adult dragonflies live for only a couple of months, the average female will lay several batches totaling many thousands of eggs. The eggs will generally hatch in about two weeks, allowing the nymphs, also known as naiads, to emerge.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Depending on species, dragonfly nymphs can spend up to four years in the water before they undergo their final transformation into adults. Most dragonfly nymphs have abdominal gills found in the interior of the rectum. They can usually propel themselves about by sucking water into their abdominal gills and squirting it back out again. In this manner, dragonfly nymphs can get up the speed to capture prey or escape from predators.

Water fleas, newt larvae, bloodworms, and pond snail eggs are among the organisms typically preyed upon by dragonfly nymphs. The nymphs are typically preyed upon in turn by larger insects, fish, and leeches.

It can take anywhere from one to four years for the typical dragonfly nymph to reach adulthood. The nymphs typically remain in the water until they mature. During their nymph stage, dragonflies will usually shed their skins and grow larger eight to 17 times. The developmental period between each molting is typically known as an instar.

Once the dragonfly nymphs have become sizable enough, they will generally leave the water to undergo their final molting. This final molting typically reveals the dragonfly's adult wings. Dragonfly nymphs often undergo their final molting at night, and will often do so in large groups. Biologists believe that dragonflies may molt on a large scale to ensure the availability of a mate, and as protection against predators. Once the dragonflies have matured, they will typically live for another six to eight weeks.

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Discussion Comments


@ZipLine-- You're right. The amount of time a dragonfly spends as a nymph and the number of skins it sheds also depends on environmental conditions like temperature. For example, low temperatures are believed to slow down development. So dragonfly nymphs exposed to lower temperatures will spend more time as nymphs.

Dragonfly eggs don't even start growing until they are fully submerged in water. Dragonflies lay their eggs near water but not in water. So they lay them at a location where the water will soon rise to submerge the eggs. The eggs remain dormant, that is, they do not develop until they are in water. Similarly, a variety of factors can affect the development of dragonfly nymphs.


@fify-- That's a good question. I'm not sure why that is but keep in mind that there are different species of dragonflies. The duration of a dragonfly's life cycle depends on its species. Some dragonflies actually spend a relatively short time as nymphs. Similarly, I'm sure that some dragonflies remain as adults longer than eight weeks.

Four years as a nymph is really the maximum duration. The average is probably much less than that.


Dragonfly spend most of their life as nymphs. It seems that the nymph stage of their life cycle is just for the preparation to be a full adult that can fly on land. But why do dragonflies spend years as nymphs and only six to eight weeks as adults?

That seems kind of odd. I would have thought that the nymph stage would be shorter and the adult stage much longer.

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