Prey size selection and distance estimation in foraging adult dragonflies

J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol. 2005 Sep;191(9):791-7. doi: 10.1007/s00359-005-0002-8. Epub 2005 Sep 13.


To determine whether perching dragonflies visually assess the distance to potential prey items, we presented artificial prey, glass beads suspended from fine wires, to perching dragonflies in the field. We videotaped the responses of freely foraging dragonflies (Libellula luctuosa and Sympetrum vicinum-Odonata, suborder Anisoptera) to beads ranging from 0.5 mm to 8 mm in diameter, recording whether or not the dragonflies took off after the beads, and if so, at what distance. Our results indicated that dragonflies were highly selective for bead size. Furthermore, the smaller Sympetrum preferred beads of smaller size and the larger Libellula preferred larger beads. Each species rejected beads as large or larger than their heads, even when the beads subtended the same visual angles as the smaller, attractive beads. Since bead size cannot be determined without reference to distance, we conclude that dragonflies are able to estimate the distance to potential prey items. The range over which they estimate distance is about 1 m for the larger Libellula and 70 cm for the smaller Sympetrum. The mechanism of distance estimation is unknown, but it probably includes both stereopsis and the motion parallax produced by head movements.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal
  • Distance Perception / physiology*
  • Flight, Animal / physiology
  • Insecta / physiology*
  • Predatory Behavior / physiology*
  • Size Perception / physiology*
  • Videotape Recording / methods