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On the So-Called "Territories" of Dragonflies (Odonata-Anisoptera)

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image of Behaviour

Observations on male dragonflies in their breeding areas (i.e. by water) show frequent, and often violent clashes between males of the same species, and sometimes between males of different species. Since male dragonflies often remain in approximately the same place for some length of time, and since they appear to attack other male dragonflies which approach them, dragonflies appear to possess, and have been credited with, territorial behaviour. They appear to defend the area in which they occur from other individuals. Marking experiments showed that although individual dragonflies sometimes visit exactly the same place on different days, this is the exception rather than the rule. Other experiments to detcrmine the nature of the clashes between males were made: dragonflies were attached to cotton threads: these animals could fly, but not escape from the free living individuals to which they were presented, and whose reactions were observed. No essential differences were noted between the behaviour of free males to females on threads and that of free males to males on threads. In the following species free males took up the "tandem" (precoitus) position with males of their own species, whose escape was prevented experimentally: Anax imperator, Aeshna cyanea, Libellula quadrimaculata, Orthetrum cancellatum, Sympetrum striolatum, Sympetrum sanguineum. No evidence was obtained which suggested that the clashes observed in the field are due primarily to aggressive behaviour. It is concluded from the experimental work described above, and from observations made in the field, that dragonflies do not possess territories in any accepted sense of the word. Nevertheless the probable inability of male dragonflies to distinguish between the sexes apparently leads indirectly to their spacing out on their breeding areas, and thus dispersal from them, as in truly territorial animals. Dispersal in the Odonata is compared with that of territorial animals, and its possible functions are discussed.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Zoology, The University of Bristol


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