How to Tell the Difference Between a Dragonfly and a Damselfly

A male tropical king skimmer rests on a plant. . Allan Hopkins/ MNN Flickr Group

Dragonflies and damselflies are closely related and may seem at first glance to be like twins. But once you know what to look for, telling the two members of the order Odonata apart is a piece of cake.

There are four details that even the most inexperienced bug watcher can use to identify if the insect is a dragonfly or a damselfly. They are the eyes, body shape, wing shape and position of the wings at rest.

Eyes

Dragonflies have much larger eyes than damselflies, with the eyes taking up most of the head as they wrap around from the side to the front of the face. The eyes of a damselfly are large, but there is always a gap of space between them.

Body Shape

Dragonflies have bulkier bodies than damselflies, with a shorter, thicker appearance. Damselflies have a body made like the narrowest of twigs, whereas dragonflies have a bit of heft.

Wing Shape

Both dragonflies and damselflies have two sets of wings, but they have different shapes. Dragonflies have hind wings that broaden at the base, which makes them larger than the front set of wings. Damselflies have wings that are the same size and shape for both sets, and they also taper down as they join the body, becoming quite narrow as they connect.

Position of the Wings at Rest

Finally, you can spot the difference when the insect is at rest. Dragonflies hold their wings out perpendicular to their bodies when resting, like an airplane. Damselflies fold their wings up and hold them together across the top of their backs.

Can You Tell the Difference Now?

Now that you know the differences, you can put your knowledge to the test with the image above: dragonfly or damselfly?

The tropical king skimmer shown here is a type of dragonfly. You can tell by its thick body, the wings held out horizontally while at rest, the eyes that wrap around to the front of the head, and the broad wings that get thicker from tip to base.

For a quick comparison, here's a damselfly at rest, where you can see the much thinner body, the eyes that sit at the side of the head, and narrower wings that taper at the base and which are held together above the body:

A dainty red damselfly rests on a green leaf.
A dainty red damselfly rests on a green leaf. Mark Carthy/Shutterstock

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