Pyrrhosoma nymphula (Sulzer)   
Large Red Damselfly

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Subphylum: Hexapoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Odonata – dragonflies & damselflies

British distribution: Widespread and locally common throughout Britain.
World distribution: Europe, extending into Asia.

Pyrrhosoma nymphula, male
Pyrrhosoma nymphula, male, resting on vegetation in wet heathland, New Forest, Hampshire, May 2004.

Pyrrhosoma nymphula is a damselfly (suborder Zygoptera) rather than a true dragonfly (suborder Anisoptera). As is typical of suborder Zygoptera, the insect is slender, its fore- and hind-wings are similar in size and shape, and when the insect is at rest, the wings are held back aligned along the abdomen.

It is the only common red damselfly and it is one of the few damselflies that occurs throughout Britain – most damselflies being distinctly southern in distribution.

Identification and variation
Identification of this species is rarely difficult. The only other predominantly red British damselfly is the Small Red Damselfly, Ceriagrion tenellum, which is smaller, much rarer, and has orange or red legs (the legs are black in Pyrrhosoma nymphula). The conspicuous, orange or red 'antehumeral stripes' on the dorsal surface of the thorax of P. nymphula are very thin or absent in C. tenellum. The only other possible confusion could be with 'darter' dragonflies such as Sympetrum striolatum, but these are more robust, have a strong, darting flight, compared with the fluttering flight of damselflies, and rest with their wings spread.
Note that the bright red colour in P. nymphula develops with maturity; newly emerged individuals are more yellow or orange in colour.

As shown here, the male has a black thorax, with orange to red antehumeral stripes, and black on the posterior segments of the abdomen. (Black showing as irridescent greenish in the photograph.) The female, however, is variable, with different named forms varying in the proportions of red and black on their bodies, and the predominantly black f. melanotum has yellow antehumeral stripes and the abdomen is very narrowly ringed with yellow. This insect is more readily confused with females of other species and reference should be made to a well illustrated identification guide such as those listed below.

P. nymphula is generally common in wetland habitats, including marshes, by slow streams, pondsides, canals and peat bogs. Like other dragon- and damselflies, it catches small insects in flight, though it is, itself, prey to larger dragonflies and birds (although its black and red colours should be seen as warning colouration?). Longfield (1949) notes that on the wet heaths of the New Forest it is often caught by Sundew (Drosera).

As with other dragonflies, the larval (nymph) stage is aquatic, a predator amongst vegetation and on the bottom sediments, feeding on various small invertebrates, notably midge larvae.

Remarks on dragonflies and damselflies in biodiversity assessments are given in the account of Cordulegaster boltonii.

Modern, well illustrated, information and identification guides to British species include:
•   Brooks, S., & Lewington, R. (2002). Field guide to the dragonflies and damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland, 3rd ed., British Wildlife Publishing, Hook.
•   Corbet, P.S., & Brooks, S.J. (2008). Dragonflies, Collins New Naturalist, London.
•   Dijkstra, K.-D.B., & Lewington, R. (2006). Field guide to the dragonflies of Britain and Europe including western Turkey and north-western Africa, British Wildlife Publishing, Milton on Stour.
•   Hammond, C.O. (1985). The dragonflies of Great Britain and Ireland, updated version of 2nd edition (revised by R.Merritt), Harley Books, Colchester.
•   McGeeney, A. (1986). A complete guide to British dragonflies, Jonathan Cape, London.
•   Smallshire, D., & Swash, A. (2004). Britain's dragonflies. A guide to the identification of the damselflies and dragonflies of Great Britain and Ireland, WILDGuides Ltd., Old Basing.
Additional Reference
•   Longfield, C. (1949). The dragonflies of the British Isles, 2nd ed., F. Warne & Co., London.

© A.J. Silverside
Page first hosted at, January 2005, December 2008; transferred to with minor edits, November 2009, last updated April 2014
For text layout and clarity it is best viewed with Internet Explorer
Return to main Index
Conditions of Use home page