Sympetrum striolatum (Charp.)   
Common Darter

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

British distribution: Widespread and locally common in most of England and Wales, but much rarer in northern England. In Scotland largely restricted to the west coast, and possibly a separate species or subspecies (see below). Also an immigrant from the continent, resulting in scattered records outside its breeding range.
World distribution: Widespread in Europe and Asia, northern Africa.

Sympetrum striolatum, male
Sympetrum striolatum male, 'perching' on fence above fen dyke, Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire, September 2003.

Sympetrum striolatum is a true dragonfly (i.e. a member of the suborder Anisoptera, rather than the suborder Zygoptera, the damselflies). It is generally the commonest of the 'darter' dragonflies in Britain. Hammond (1985) gives the wingspan as 58 mm and the average overall length as 37 mm., making it a conspicuous insect, though not as large as the hawker dragonflies.

Identification and variation
The male, shown here, is predominantly a bright orange-red. Females and immature males are more yellowish in colour.

In west Scotland, individuals have more black along the sides of the thorax and abdomen and more black on the legs. They have been regarded as a separate species, S. nigrescens, the Highland or Black-legged Darter, or as a subspecies, but intergrade with more typical S. striolatum where this occurs. They are probably best regarded as a melanic form of S. striolatum (thermal melanism?).

There are several other British Sympetrum species and identification requires reference to a well illustrated guide such as Hammond (op. cit.), Brooks & Lewington (2002) or Dijkstra & Lewington (2006). Perhaps most similar amongst native species is S. sanguineum, a much more local dragonfly of southern and eastern England. In this species the male has a noticably narrowed upper abdomen. Very similar indeed to S. striolatum and distinguishable only by face-patterning and genital characters (see Longfield, 1949, Dijkstra & Lewington, op. cit.) is S. vulgatum, a rare vagrant from Europe.

This is a dragonfly of a wide range of waterbodies. It is a strong flyer, able to hover and to make rapid, darting flights after its prey. Although most frequently seen by ponds and in the wetland areas in which it breeds, it can hunt far from water and is often seen resting or basking on light coloured objects or on roads and paths. It frequently selects a perch from which it will make its hunting forays and will characteristically return to the same spot.

As with other dragonflies, the larval (nymph) stage is aquatic, a predator in still or slow-flowing waters.

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

•   Brooks, S., & Lewington, R. (2002). Field guide to the dragonflies and damselflies of Great Britain and Ireland, 3rd ed., British Wildlife Publishing, Hook.
•   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.
•   Longfield, C. (1949). The dragonflies of the British Isles, 2nd ed., F. Warne & Co., London.

© A.J. Silverside
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