Behind Every Great Dragonfly Is a Great … Naiad?
What's a Naiad?

When you see a dragonfly flying with incredible skill and agility, it may be hard to believe that it spent most of its life as a wingless, water-breathing, immature form called a naiad. The term "naiad" is specific to dragonflies and mayflies because their immature forms and lifestyles are very different from the adults, and the immatures do not undergo a pupal stage like butterflies. A nymph is an immature form of an insect that shares the general appearance and lifestyle of the adult. A larva is very different from the adult form, but transforms into the adult during an inactive pupal stage. A naiad retains its immature form until it sheds its skin for the last time and the adult emerges from the cast skin, which is called an exuvia. Since the naiads of dragonflies are aquatic and the adults require air to breathe, the naiad has to crawl out of the water for the adult to emerge successfully.

Dragonfly naiads are very different in appearance and lifestyle from the adults. The adults are brightly colored winged insects, while the naiads are aquatic insects that are colored in mottled browns and olive greens. The naiad does share the adult's predatory lifestyle, however. All dragonfly naiads are carnivorous without exception, and they have an amazing adaptation to this carnivorous lifestyle. The labium of the naiad, which is a mouthpart similar to our lower jaw, is lengthened and hinged. It can be shot in the direction of prey almost the length of the naiad's body. The end of the labium has hooks on it that grasp the prey so it can be dragged back to the mouth and be chewed by the mandibles.

The skin of the naiad also serves as its skeleton. It cannot grow with the naiad, but must be shed. In some species this shedding is done up to a dozen times as the naiad grows. The period between each molt is called an instar. During the last instar the wingpads on the naiads back turn dark, and for the next molt the naiad will climb out of the water and the adult will emerge from the cast-off skin, or exuvia.

The newly hatched adult is soft and weak, and is not ready to take part in the territorial battles at the water's edge. The first flight, or maiden flight, is always directed away from the water. The immature adult will roam the forests and meadows for a week or more before it is sexually mature and strong enough to establish a territory and pass on its genes.

The abdomen is the major body part behind the thorax. It contains ten segments, and houses the organs necessary for digestion and reproduction. These organs include those necessary for mating, and in the case of the females, the organs necessary for laying eggs. At the end of the males' last segment are the anal appendages. These appendages are used to grasp the female behind the head during mating. Each species has differently shaped anal appendages, so they are very useful in identifying many species of dragonfly.