Key features and identification terms for dragonflies

A brief guide to successful identification of dragonflies and damselflies

If you are completely new to the world of dragonflies and damselflies then here is a brief guide to get you started.

Firstly some classification. Dragonflies and damselflies are placed into two sub orders within the insect order Odonata. Dragonflies are in the sub-order Anispotera, which translates as ‘unequal winged’. Damselflies belong to the sub order Zygoptera which means ‘equal winged’.

Dragonfly or Damselfly?

On the whole dragonflies are a lot bigger, vary in body shape, look more robust than damselflies and have a much more direct flight. Damselflies have a more uniform body shape and have a weak fluttery flight. Dragonflies always hold their wings out at right angles to their bodies whereas damselflies hold their wings behind their abdomen. Damselflies eyes are always separate in dragonflies they almost always touch.

For more detailed descriptions of each species in Dorset go to pages for dragonflies and damselfies. There is also a glossary of terms for easy reference.


  • Wings unequal in size
  • Wings held out straight at right angles
  • Body shape varies, but robust in form
  • Powerful, fast flight
  • Eyes touch in most species 
  • Wings equal in size
  • Wings held together over back
  • Body shape long, thin and dainty proportions
  • Weak, fluttery flight
  • Eyes separated

Identification Guides & Atlas

Britain's Dragonflies 3nd Edition by Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash. WILDGuides 2014. £17.95. ISBN 10 - 0691161232                                                           There are over 450 stunning photographs, individual species accounts including flight times and maps, a guide to larval identification and some useful pages showing the key features of similar species.

Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Steve Brooks and Richard Lewington. British Wildlife Publishing. 5th edition, 2014. £18.95 ISBN 10 - 095649028X                                                                                                                                                                                                                 The revised edition of this guide covers all the resident and migrant species on the British list, including recent additions. As above, there are sections on biology, habitats, larval identification and distribution. There are also the usual individual species accounts with over 280 colour illustrations by Richard Lewington.

Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Britain and Europe by Klaas-Douwe B Dijkstra and Richard Lewington. British Wildlife Publishing 2006. £21.95 pbk/£30.00 hbk. ISBN 0 953 1399 4 8 (paperback) or 0 953 1399 5 6 (hardback)                                                                                                                                                                 A comprehensive new guide illustrated with almost 1,000 drawings and photographs. It covers the whole of Europe, plus other nearby areas. 

Atlas of Dragonflies in Britain and Ireland Edited by Cham, Nelson et al, 2014. Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. £37.99 ISBN-10: 190669849X                     Produced in partnership with the British Dragonfly Society and DragonflyIreland, this full colour hardback book (approx. 400 pages) represents five years work by volunteers and partner organisations to map the distribution of damselflies and dragonflies throughout Britain and Ireland. As well as summarising the distribution of over 1 million dragonfly records, the Atlas includes: Species accounts, including maps, for all 56 resident and immigrant species recorded in Britain and Ireland Four pages devoted to each resident species Sections on habitats, conservation, distribution changes and phenology High quality colour photographs of all species and their habitats.

All photographs by kind permission & © of Ken Dolbear unless otherwise stated. Alll rights reserved.