Shadow darners are very common and are in all provinces and territories of Canada, as well as 42 states in the U.S. This species is not found in Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Hawaii and Alaska.
There are two described sub-species: Aeshna umbrosa umbrosa, which is found in the eastern part of North America, and Aeshna umbrosa occidentalis, which is found in the western part of North America. They appear to differ only in geographic range.
Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Type of Residency: Year-round
Both males and females have pale gray-green faces with two antennae, a strong toothed jaw, and three large, bright eyes, or ocelli, which vary from blue-gray to brown and form a triangle. Surrounding these ocelli are the compound eyes, which are larger and darker in color. Unlike other species of dragonflies, shadow darners do not have a dark black stripe across the face. The head is approximately 7.4 to 8.4 mm long. The total length of a shadow darner is generally 6.5 to 7.8 cm. There are two pairs of large wings spanning approximately 8.5 to 10 cm. The forewings are slightly narrower than the hindwings, which are approximately 4.2 to 4.7 cm long.
The body is a powerful, brown thorax and a slender abdomen, with six spined legs and strong claws. In males, there are yellow-green stripes on the side of the thorax and blue stripes on the top. The abdomen has paired blue spots, usually on 9 out of its 10 segments. Females can have the same coloring as males, known as the blue form, or in rare cases, sometimes green spots (known as the green form), or a combination of green and blue spots, on the abdomen. Colors vary geographically in some cases: the Vancouver Island population has no abdominal spots, while populations living in colder climates generally have darker spots. Adults that have recently emerged from their larval shell will have pale, unpigmented bodies until the colors develop.
At the end of the abdomen, males have hooked anal appendages called cerci, while females' are unhooked. Females are also lacking the tuft of hair at the tip of the ovipositor sheath. Shadow darners are very similar to lance-tipped darners (Aeshna constricta), but can be differentiated by looking at the cerci. The cerci of shadow darners are much brighter. Often shadow darners are found flying around with paddle-tailed darners and are therefore often confused with this other species; however, paddle-tailed darners have the black stripe that shadow darners are lacking across their faces. Shadow darners also have paired spots on the ventral side of the abdomen, but paddle-tailed darners do not.
Range length: 6.5 to 7.8 cm.
Range wingspan: 8.5 to 10 cm.
Other Physical Features: ectothermic ; bilateral symmetry ; polymorphic
Sexual Dimorphism: sexes colored or patterned differently
Most commonly found in areas with standing water or slow-moving streams with shadowy areas, shadow darners usually inhabit lakes, ponds, boggy meadows, marshes, and mountain lakes in forests. They are also occasionally found in clearings or along roads, particularly when hunting. At higher elevations, this species has more diverse phenotypes.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial ; freshwater
Terrestrial Biomes: taiga ; forest ; mountains
Aquatic Biomes: lakes and ponds; rivers and streams; temporary pools
Wetlands: marsh ; swamp ; bog
Other Habitat Features: riparian
Habitat and Ecology
By hawking for prey, shadow darners eat up to 20% of their body weight every day. They hunt primarily at dusk, as they are most active in the shade, but at any elevation and generally out in the open. Sometimes they hunt in a swarm with other shadow darners. They also use the spines on their legs to form a basket with which they can catch their prey. They usually eat any smaller insect, but especially mosquitoes, midges, and other dragonflies, as well as moths, locusts, and beetles. They do not, however, eat the wings of their prey, and so they pull these off before starting to eat. Naiads mostly eat larvae of aquatic insects, but sometimes supplement their diet with freshwater shrimp, tadpoles and small fish.
Animal Foods: amphibians; fish; insects; aquatic crustaceans
Primary Diet: carnivore (Insectivore )
Shadow darners are predators and prey as both larvae and adults. During reproduction, shadow darner females lay their eggs inside the stems or leaves of plants to shield them from harsh weather. Many parasitic organisms, such as mites, parasitic worms and protozoans attach themselves to shadow darners during their emergence from the larval stage.
- parasitic worms (Helminthes)
- protozoans (Protozoa)
- mites (Acari)
Adult shadow darners are extremely agile in the air, and so it's difficult for predators to catch them. However, birds such as American kestrels, Swainson's hawks, merlins, and purple martins specialize in catching dragonflies, and consequently have keen eyesight and can fly fast enough to catch them. Shadow darners are also, on occasion, eaten by large insects such as robber flies. Females can also be at risk during oviposition for predation by amphibians, like frogs and newts. Greenish-brown coloring of naids helps camouflage them from predators. However, when emerging from their larval skin, they are undefended, unable to fly, and vulnerable to predation by birds.
- American kestrels (Falco sparverius)
- Swainson's hawks (Buteo swainsoni)
- merlins (Falco columbarius)
- purple martins (Progne subis)
- robber flies (Stenopogon inquinatus)
- frogs (Anura)
- newts (Pleurodelinae)
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Life History and Behavior
Shadow darners rely heavily on seeing through their large, compound eyes which are designed to detect movement. They contain more ommatidia, or light-sensitive, photoreceptor cell clusters, than the eyes of any other insect. This allows them to see in color, and to detect ultraviolet and polarized light. They also have 3 ocelli located between the compound eyes, which are used to monitor the horizon and their orientation during flight. Shadow darners normally identify mates visually by recognizing colors, sizes, or shapes.
Since most of their prey are fast moving and easily visible, shadow darners do not need long antennae to reach out and search for prey. Males use their shortened antennae, legs and cerci to grasp a female that they are interested in mating. The male's cerci must successfully link to the back of the female's head, or the match won't work (perhaps because the organisms are of different species or of the same sex). A female who is disinterested in mating can reject a male by bending her abdomen down, thereby preventing the male's cerci from making a successful connection.
During the larval stage, shadow darners still rely on sight and touch. However, since most live in the water in boggy or swamp-like conditions, they rely more heavily on touch and therefore have longer antennae and smaller eyes.
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile
Perception Channels: visual ; ultraviolet; polarized light ; tactile ; chemical
When the eggs are deposited at the end of the season in a cold climate, they enter diapause to survive the winter until they can hatch the following spring. Otherwise, the eggs generally hatch between 5 days and 2 months after oviposition, depending on the water temperature. The eggs hatch, releasing a very large, greenish-brown naiad, which is approximately 3.8 to 4.4 cm (1.5 to 1.75 inches) long. The naiad is wingless, faded in color, and lives in the water. When it is nearing the end of its larval life, the naiad climbs out of the water and switches from breathing through gills to breathing through spiracles in the thorax.
After a significant period of time in larval form, the naiad matures into the larger adult form, reaching up to 8.9 cm (3.5 inches) in length. At this time, it bursts its cuticle shell by swallowing water, and emerges from its naiad skin. During this process, the dragonfly is very vulnerable to predation, because it is soft and unable to fly until the new wings harden. For this reason, this process normally occurs at night. The adult dragonfly only lives for a few weeks.
Development - Life Cycle: metamorphosis ; diapause
In harsh environments, shadow darners experience diapause, which allows them to live for up to 7 months in the egg. In moderate climates, however, shadow darners generally hatch after about a week. After hatching, shadow darners begin their larval stage as naiads. The majority of their life (from approximately 2 months in warmer climates, up to several years in colder climates) is spent as a naiad. After leaving the larval stage, the shadow darner lives for approximately 2 weeks as an adult; however, this can be extended if the dragonfly survives more difficult environmental conditions in earlier stages (for example, a harsh Canadian winter). The longest known adult lifespan of any species of dragonfly is 77 days.
Status: wild: 8 to 26 months.
Status: wild: 2 to 8 months.
Unlike some species of dragonflies, male shadow darners do not court females. Male and female shadow darners mate in flight using the tandem position, in which the male's head is at the female's tail and vice versa. The male transfers his sperm from the primary to the secondary genitalia, known as the hamulus, in preparation for copulation, and also removes any sperm inside the female from prior mates. The male then holds the female with his legs and cerci, while the female reaches underneath the male, forming the wheel position, and removes a sperm packet with which the eggs are fertilized. After mating, the male persuades the female to oviposit in his territory. During this process, the male guards the female to ensure that another male does not steal her before she finishes ovipositing.
Mating System: polygynandrous (promiscuous)
Adults become sexually mature approximately 2 to 3 weeks after leaving the larval stage, but this can take longer in more severe climates. Breeding occurs from late April through the end of November. Since their sexually active lifespan is so short, shadow darners mate as often as possible (generally every 1 to 5 days) for the duration of their adult lives. After the male and female mate, the female fertilizes the eggs and oviposits in the late afternoon and early evening, usually into aquatic plants or wet, decaying wood. She is able to cut a hole in the plant with a chitinous blade that is part of her ovipositor. The number of eggs in each clutch varies depending on the climate and amount of sunlight available, but is usually around 500.
Breeding interval: Shadow darners breed often as possible (every 1 to 5 days).
Breeding season: Shadow darners breed from late April to November.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 3 to 20 weeks.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 3 to 20 weeks.
Key Reproductive Features: seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); oviparous
The male chooses a territory that is a prime site for oviposition to ensure successful hatching of eggs. He then guards the site from other males, thereby protecting any eggs that may have been deposited there. The female protects the eggs inside her until it is time for oviposition. To deposit them safely, she uses her chitinous blade to cut holes in plants, making a nest-like arrangement to protect the eggs until they hatch.
Parental Investment: pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Male, Female)
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Aeshna umbrosa
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Aeshna umbrosa
Public Records: 55
Specimens with Barcodes: 80
Species With Barcodes: 1
Shadow darners are not threatened or endangered. They are classified as a species of "least concern" by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
State of Michigan List: no special status
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Many humans incorrectly believe that shadow darners are venomous, and are therefore scared of them. However, all dragonflies can sometimes carry parasites, and when eaten raw could potentially transmit these parasites to a human. Dragonflies are rarely eaten in North America, and so this is an unusual occurrence in the case of shadow darners.
Negative Impacts: injures humans (causes disease in humans )
Shadow darners, like other dragonflies, play a critical role in pest control, particularly in crops and water storage, where much damage is caused by mosquitoes. For example, mosquito larvae often inhabit rice fields or water containers, where they pose particular threat to both the crop and to humans, as they carry numerous fatal diseases. By adding a few shadow darner larvae, the mosquitoes can be controlled, and even eliminated entirely. Shadow darners also eat other pests and disease vectors, including locusts, moths, sandflies and wood-boring beetles.
Researchers have also noted that a reduction in the population of shadow darners is often a sign of water contamination, and can therefore be used as a warning sign for conservationists.
Positive Impacts: source of medicine or drug ; research and education; controls pest population
The shadow darner is a large dragonfly with a length of 68 to 78 mm (2.7 to 3.1 in). The base is brownish black in color. Greenish crescent-shaped spots are found at the top of the thorax. The sides of the thorax are marked with two yellowish to yellowish-green diagonal stripes. Its abdomen is marked with bluish green spots. The male shadow darner has paddle-shaped anal appendages.
The naiad of the shadow darner is large in size, with a length of 38 to 43 mm (1.5 to 1.7 in). This naiad is long and slender, which is the typical shape of immature darners. It is mottled green and brown. The shadow darner has a vertically flattened cerci with a spike at the end, which is much brighter than the lance-tipped darner.
This dragonfly is found in most of the United States except the dry Southwest and all of the provinces and territories of Canada except Newfoundland.
Habitat and diet
The shadow darner patrols along small marshy streams. It is often found feeding along woodland edges or even in deep shadow in full forest. Shadow darners can also be found near ditches, slow streams, and ponds. This darner has a long flight season of late April to November.
The shadow darner naiad feeds on a wide variety of aquatic insects, such as mosquito larvae, other aquatic fly larvae, mayfly larvae, and freshwater shrimp. They also feed on small fish and tadpoles. This sdult will eat almost any soft-bodied flying insect, including mosquitoes, flies, butterflies, moths, mayflies, and stoneflies.
The naiad is an active predator and are able to swim by jet propulsion. They squirt water out from the ends of their abdomens. They will generally take several years to mature, and when the immature changes into a dragonfly, it does so at night. This behavior probably was evolved to avoid being eaten be daytime predators. The adult generally flies from late April to November, and does all of its hunting while on the wing. The shadow darner is able to regulate its body temperature which enables it to fly in temperatures too cold for most dragonflies. This dragonfly species in particular seems to be extremely cold tolerant. This dragonfly flies at dusk and in shaded areas, and it flies later into the fall than any species other than the yellow-legged meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum).
Male shadow darners establish and defend territories along the shores of slow streams and ponds. After both genders mate, females fly singly, without the male attached, to lay their eggs in the stems and leaves of aquatic plants.
- A. u. occidentalis
- A. u. umbrosa
- Ordonates Frame
- Shadow Darner - Aeshna umbrosa
- Aeshna umbrosa (Shadow Darner)
- Catalogue of Life : 2009 Annual Checklist : Search
- Kurt Mead. (2009) Dragonflies of the North Woods. Second edition. Duluth, MN:Kollath+Stensaas, p. 38-39.
- Dunkle, Sidney W. (2000) Dragonflies through Binoculars. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 176. ISBN 0-19-511268-7.