For astronomer, an insect is as worthy of observation as the cosmos

As an astronomer, Pieter van Dokkum explores celestial marvels and mysteries, but one of the most wondrous sights he’s ever witnessed is much more earthly: the metamorphosis of the dragonfly.

In his spare time, the Sol Goldman Family Professor of Astronomy has dedicated countless hours over the past decade to observing and photographing dragonflies, and celebrates the insect in his recent book, “Dragonflies: Magnificent Creatures of Water, Air, and Land.” The book, published by Yale University Press, features more than 160 of van Dokkum’s own color photographs, which trace the entire dragonfly life cycle.

The book has earned media attention for its close-up shots of various species of dragonflies and damselflies (a smaller and slimmer-bodied close relative), including rare pictures of their transformation from underwater nymph to hard-bodied flyers. The Yale faculty member has also taken pictures of the insects in flight and as they engage in other rarely photographed activities, such as mating and capturing prey. The insect’s delicate gossamer wings, its various species, and its multitude of colors are also revealed in van Dokkum’s images, many of which were taken at a small pond just outside of New Haven.

Along with photographs, the book offers information on various aspects of dragonfly life and behavior. Writes van Dokkum: “[Dragonflies] dart through our world, flying, seeing, hunting, mating, usually as oblivious of us as we are of them. They hover over parking lots, hunt in city parks, and visit our gardens. They are the true fairies in our lives: wondrous winged creatures that are seen in glimpses, from the corner of the eye. The aim of this book is to freeze these moments by means of photography, bringing dragonflies in for a close-up view.”

While his passion for photographing and watching dragonflies began about 10 years ago, van Dokkum says his interest in the insect originally dates back to his childhood.

“My mother passed away in 2012, and while we were cleaning out and sorting through her affairs, I came across a little book that said ‘Written by Pieter van Dokkum, 8 years old.’ It’s about nature. Several pages are dedicated to dragonflies, and it even has a page about their metamorphosis, which I described as one of the most beautiful sights in nature. I’d completely forgotten about that book, but my new book is not that different from it. Clearly, my interest in dragonflies has been there all along!”

Part of the insect’s appeal, van Dokkum says, is the fact that dragonflies are a “practical” object in nature to study in the Northeast.

“They are all around us, and once you start noticing them, it’s amazing what they look like and what they are doing,” says the astronomer. “If I were in Africa, it might be cheetahs. But here, dragonflies are pretty easy to find, and they are one of the few insects that become more beautiful the more closely you look.”

He adds that he sees one parallel between his interest in dragonflies and his profession.

“In astronomy, we look at very distant galaxies that you can’t see with the naked eye,” van Dokkum comments. “We use optics to bring them close. With dragonflies, we see these tiny little things buzzing around and use telephoto lenses to make them more visible. In both cases, the unseen is made visible.”

However, his dragonfly interest allows for a more “meditative” state of being than his astronomical pursuits, van Dokkum says.

 “I enjoy my time being outside, away from the usual job, and just being in nature,” he explains.

The idea for “Dragonflies” developed about five years ago, when van Dokkum realized that the kind of book about the insect that he would be interested in reading simply didn’t exist.

“There are some excellent field guides, which have been a huge help for me, and some books about dragonflies as a hobby, but there was no coffee table-style book that just shows off dragonflies — their colors, their metamorphosis. Another reason why I decided to create the book was because it would give my photography some structure, as it required specific shots of dragonflies eating, mating, etc. The book really gave my photography more depth,” says van Dokkum, who is self-taught.

Over his years of observation, van Dokkum writes in his book, he learned to identify different species of dragonflies and recognize their behavior. He sheepishly admits to losing shoes in the mud while wading in the pond, and sometimes spending nights — “to the consternation of the park ranger” — along the water’s edge waiting for nymphs to emerge.

He finally managed to capture close-range photos of metamorphosis at his favorite pond, where, appropriately, the astronomer captured the nighttime metamorphosis of one dragonfly using the light of the moon as his backdrop.

“Spending the night on the pond is an experience in itself, with the different sights and sounds,” laughs van Dokkum. “I was actually wading through the water in search of larvae climbing out, and it turns out there are big spiders that walk on the water at night, too. Who knew? To capture the metamorphosis, I had the idea to let the moon shine on the dragonfly’s wings, and in the photo you can see all these colors in the wings that you couldn’t see with the naked eye.”

The Yale faculty member says he is most impressed by the dragonflies in the Emerald family, which have dark bodies and vivid green eyes.

“They are very pretty and interesting to look at,” van Dokkum says. “They spend their time in treetops, flying around, and are common in the northeastern United States. I have tried for a long time to photograph them properly and have succeeded only twice. They are pretty elusive.”

In his profession, van Dokkum is a specialist on the evolution and formation of galaxies, including our own Milky Way. He has identified new stars and galaxies.

His interest in both astronomy and dragonflies intensifies the more he delves, the faculty member says.

“When I start to know something or someone better, it — or the person — becomes more interesting as it becomes more intimate or familiar,” he says. “Even now, if I start a new field or new topic in my work, the more I learn, the more interested I get. So knowing a lot about one small thing is a good way for me to get a sense of the whole. For dragonflies, just being in nature is a way to get to know one species very well.”

Van Dokkum is uncertain whether there will be a sequel book about dragonflies in the future, but says he has contemplated a children’s book on the subject.

“Dragonflies haven’t gotten anywhere near the attention of butterflies, bees, or even ants,” says the father of two young children, who have accompanied him on many pond excursions. “I’ve thought about a children’s book about dragonflies as a way to introduce them to nature. I feel I should be somewhat of an ambassador for the dragonfly, as they deserve more attention.”

The Yale faculty member says that while he especially enjoys the solitude of his dragonfly hobby, he is pleased to be sharing publicly what he has seen and learned about the fairy-like insects in book form.

“I’ve been very touched by some emails I have received from people who have read the book,” van Dokkum says. “Someone said, ‘It made me see nature in a different way,’ and I love that. There is also a conservation aspect to having people appreciate dragonflies. They need good clean water and a healthy aquatic environment. Even though dragonflies as a whole are not threatened in the United States, there are species whose numbers are declining. That’s one more reason for people to think about and be good to the environment. I hope others may experience the same enjoyment of dragonflies that I do.”

5 facts about dragonflies

Here are five facts van Dokkum shared with YaleNews about dragonflies.

1. Dragonflies can travel up to 40 miles an hour using their four wings, which each move independently.

“Their flight is quite astonishing and is studied a lot because dragonflies use the turbulence created in the air by their own wings to help them fly,” van Dokkum comments. “Their independent wings give them huge flexibility: They can stop in midair, do flips, go backwards, or hover.”

2. Their flight also helps them to be very adept hunters; they grasp prey out of the air and are successful 90% of the time, making them one of the best insect hunters.

3. The dragonfly lives completely underwater before metamorphosis.

“Dragonfly metamorphosis is quite astonishing because it happens so fast,” says van Dokkum. “In the evening, this ugly aquatic creature climbs up a reed. It is kind of grotesque, and looks nothing like a dragonfly at all. It sits there, and then out crawls a fully formed dragonfly. Once it emerges, it doesn’t change anymore. That’s the body it will have until it dies. This gives dragonflies a certain fragility. With every hit they get to their wings or bodies, they have to just soldier on. They won’t be able to crawl out of their old body. At the end of dragonfly season, you see a lot of dragonflies with tears in their wings, still able to fly and hunt.

“Once they go through metamorphosis, their bodies aren’t meant to last long. The longest part of their lifestyle is underwater. The lifespan of an adult dragonfly is typically only a few months.”

4. There are more than 5,500 dragonfly and damselfly species, about 450 of which live in the United States.

5. The dragonfly is thought to be one of the first flying animals, appearing in the fossil record some 300 million years ago. The wingspan of ancient species reached up to two-and-a-half feet, making them the largest insects that ever lived.