Deadly Dragonflies: Master Predators Kill Prey 95 Percent of the Time (Video)

First Posted: Apr 05, 2013 10:13 AM EDT

Dragonflies are some of the most acrobatic aerialists among insects. They can hover, dive and dart through the air. While these maneuvers make them adept at avoiding predators, they also make dragonflies some of the deadliest predators. A new paper describes exactly how these insects intercept their prey in midair, and why they're so successful at it.

Dragonflies come in all shapes in sizes, from the tiny elfin skimmer to the giant darner dragonfly, the largest in the United States. They possess four independently maneuverable wings that allow them to swoop and swerve, and make them remarkable when they take to the air. In addition, the insects can reach top speeds of up to 30 mph and can regularly catch prey--even when they're missing an entire wing, according to io9.

In this latest study, researchers examined exactly what features have made this insect so adept at catching its prey. They found that dragonflies can catch their prey in midair more than 95 percent of the time. So how do they manage this? It isn't just their unique wings--it's also their brains.

The researchers found that a group of 16 neurons, called target-selective descending neurons (TSDNs), are one of the key reasons why dragonflies are so successful. These neurons code a population vector that reflects the direction of a dragonfly's prey with high accuracy and reliability. In particular, the researchers found the TSDN spatial (receptive field) and temporal (latency) properties matched the area of the retina where the prey is focused and the reaction time during predatory flights. Essentially, dragonflies have the ability to track and intercept their prey through highly tuned responses between their eyes and their wings.

Needless to say, this makes dragonflies quite effective as hunters. Yet their style of hunting isn't face-to-face. "Before I got into this work, I assumed it was an active chase, like a lion going after an impala," said Stacey Combes, who studies the biomechanics of dragonfly flight at Harvard, in an interview with The New York Times. "But it's more like ambush predation. The dragonfly comes from behind and below, and the prey doesn't know what's coming."

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Want to see a video of this amazing creature? Check it out here.

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