Skip to main content

What Size Was the Prehistoric Dragonfly?

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

The unresolved mysteries of evolution are still there to solve them. Many evolution stages have not been fully understood yet, and humankind seeks to find answers to what animals that lived on our planet millions of years ago looked like.

Luckily, nature itself helps us - humans - meet this challenge. Pieces of amber, which are nothing but the fossil resin of ancient conifers, often contain remains of prehistoric insects, preserved in their natural state. However, it is doubtful that meganeura - one of the largest-known flying insect species - will be found inside such samples.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

It is not entirely clear why the insects related to the present-day dragonflies, with wingspans reaching over 70 centimetres, died out. One of the theories says that since oxygen content in the atmosphere was significantly higher then, oxygen supply to insect tissues may have been more efficient compared to now. Because of that, meganeura could grow to gigantic sizes. As global oxygen levels declined, the giant species gradually disappeared.

юрский период
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Even in the Jurassic, known above all as the dawn of the dinosaurs, dragonflies were no longer that gigantic. Nevertheless, it did not stop John Michael Crichton, an American science-fiction author, from writing a novel featuring two giant red insects with two-metre-long wings. According to the plot, the insects, along with dinosaurs, inhabited a mysterious island off the coast of Costa Rica that was bought out by a millionaire scientist to establish a wildlife-themed park. In 1993 Steven Spielberg filmed a same-named movie based on Crichton's book.

юрский период
© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Real size of the 'Jurassic' dragonflies was under ten centimetres. Their outer appearance did not differ much from that of today's species either. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving literature pieces, tells the story of this kind of dragonfly. The epic was written c. 2100 BCE and is based on Sumerian poems. In its text, the insect is portrayed as the evidence of immortality being impossible and shows that human life is short. Afterwards, Ivan Krylov elaborated on this idea in his fable "The Ant & the Dragonfly".

"Ah, you mean:" – "I made a hit:

All the summer I was singing:"

"You were singing. Well done dealing!

Now dance a little bit!"

The dragonfly, embodying the image of a man nearing the end of their life, who has not lived it as would have wanted to, tries to bargain with fate, which in the form of the ant gives a firm verdict of imminent death.