emergence

Many people in Finland have a summer house or cottage – a place where you can leave the everyday stresses behind. One day, many years ago, my grandparents asked if I wanted theirs: I happily accepted and have been one of those lucky people ever since. Mine is even more of a relaxing place than most modern cottages: it has neither electricity nor running water. I always keep my phone off when I’m there, and ask guests, if I have any, to do the same. Just so we can save the battery for an emergency, of course.

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Evening tranquility. The photos below were all taken to the right of the pier base (pile of rocks), where you can see some fallen reeds.

These days, I live about 3,800 km from my summer cottage, but I managed to visit it for a couple of days in the beginning of the summer anyway. As I was walking along the water, I saw a familiar sight: the empty skins of dragonfly nymphs.

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The nymphs attach themselves to the straws so well that the emerging adult can hang from the old skin as it’s crawling out. 

Curious as I am, I didn’t just move on with my life. I got myself down to the level of the nymph skins and started looking for dragonflies that were still climbing out of their old skins, or for nymphs dragging themselves out of the water. Dragonflies lay their eggs in water. The eggs turn into nymphs – aggressive predators with amazing jaws. They spend most of their life like this, in the water, hunting other insect larvae, tadpoles, and small aquatic animals.

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A late-stage dragonfly nymph. Not a great photo, but you get the idea.

After months or years as nymphs, they climb up a reed or grass to begin the next phase of their lives: they become adult. This is the stage of a dragonfly’s life when you’re most likely to see them – big, elegant flying predators.

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A newly emerged adult dragonfly. 

After having dragged themselves out of the water and climbed up onto something suitable, the nymph’s skin cracks behind the head, and the adult makes its way out. Not an easy task, this growing up process! The beginning goes quite quickly, and sometimes that’s as far as the dragonfly gets. There are a lot of creatures waiting to take advantage of this vulnerable time in a developing insect’s life.

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One of the unlucky ones. The dragonfly is still hanging from its nymphal skin.

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Something went wrong here, too – but at a later stage.

The wait is still not over for those who make it out unharmed. They still have about 20-30 minutes of just sitting around before they can fly away and get about their business of eating and mating. To be fair, they’re not actually just being lazy while they’re sitting there, holding on to their old skin. They start pumping hemolymph, a clear body fluid that resembles our blood, into their wings to unfold them. Only when the wings are fully expanded and have dried sufficiently can they fly away and truly begin the last stage of their lives.

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A fresh pair of wings: here they’re still a bit wrinkled…

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We’re getting there! Also notice that the colouration has changed a bit. 

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The same individual about 10 minutes later. The darkened wings are completely unfolded and dry; moments later, it took off. 

For us mammals, this process seems quite alien. On the other hand, there are some similarities – during the first part of our development we live in an aquatic environment, and at some point, we make a drastic change and get out of the water. We’re not nearly as active or spend as much time in that first part as dragonflies do, though.

The development of any creature – and I don’t just mean animals – is an amazing process. The solutions to how we get from two joined cells to a fully developed individual are often quirky and suboptimal, thanks to our evolutionary histories. We’re surrounded by weirdness. In fact, we’re pretty weird ourselves. It never stops amazing me how happy that makes me.

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