How to identify UK animals

Downy emerald dragonfly and common blue damselfly Similar at a quick glance, but dragonflies (left) and damselflies (right) can be easy to tell apart using some of these hints and tips

Take a walk along a river or simply relax by a lake or garden pond on a warm sunny day and you are sure to be rewarded with the spectacular sight of a dragonfly or damselfly.

At first glance they can appear similar with delicate wings, long abdomen and big eyes. But on closer inspection a few key characteristics will soon have you telling them apart.

Often referred to as just dragonflies, damselflies and dragonflies are two distinct groups and in the tables below we'll help you to tell the differences and to recognise some common, and not so common, members of each group.

Dragonflies

Key tips to identification:

Large and robust, they are strong fliers and can be seen well away from water.

Hindwings are usually shorter and wider than the forewings, at rest the wings are held open.

The large eyes are very close together and often touch.

Type or group For example Species to look out for

Skimmers, chasers and darters

Four spot chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four spot chaser
  • Four-spotted chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata): Yellow spots along the sides of the abdomen and two dark marks on wing.
  • Common darter (Sympetrum striolatum): Eyes are brown above and yellow below with a yellow stripe along black legs.
  • Broad-bodied chaser (Libellula depressa): Very broad and flattened abdomen with dark brown wing bases.

Emerald or green-eyed skimmers

Downy emerald

Downy emerald

Downy Emerald
  • Downy emerald (Cordulia aenea): Metallic green with a bronze sheen, bright shiny green eyes and a hairy thorax.
  • Brilliant emerald (Somatochlora metallica): Large and dark metallic emerald green with a bright bronze sheen and apple green eyes.
  • Northern emerald (Somatochlora arctica): Faintly yellow wings with dark abdomen and blue-green eyes.

Hawkers or darners

Southern hawker

Southern hawker

Southern Hawker
  • Southern hawker (Aeshna cyanea): Brightly coloured with joined markings at the male's pale blue abdomen end.
  • Emperor (Anax imperator): Very large with a dark stripe down the male's blue and female's green abdomen.
  • Migrant hawker (Aeshna mixta): A late flying small hawker with blue or yellow paired spots along the abdomen.

Golden-ringed and club-tailed

Golden-ringed Dragonfly

Golden-ringed

Golden-ringed Dragonfly
  • Golden-ringed (Cordulegaster boltonii): Black with striking yellow rings along the abdomen, green eyes meet at the top of the head.
  • Common club-tail (Gomphus vulgatissimus): Black with yellow markings and a distinct club-shaped abdomen. Eyes do not meet at the top of the head, unlike most dragonflies.

Damselflies

Key tips to identification:

Small and slender, they are weak fliers and usually seen near water.

Hindwings and forewings are roughly the same size and shape, at rest they hold them closed along the body (except for the emerald damselflies).

The eyes are on either side of the head and never touch.

Type or group For example Species to look out for

Narrow-winged or blue / black and red

Common blue

Common blue

Common blue
  • Common blue (Enallagma cyathigerum): Distinctly black and blue with black stripe on side of thorax and club mark on abdomen.
  • Large red (Pyrrhosoma nymphula): Large and deep red coloured with a bronze top to the thorax and black legs.
  • Blue-tailed (Ischnura elegans): Diamond-shaped marking on the wing, male has a blue abdominal segment.

Broad-winged or demoiselles

Banded demoiselle

Banded demoiselle

Banded demoiselle
  • Banded demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens): Obviously coloured wings in the male it is a dark blue central band, while the females are more pale green.
  • Beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo): Males have a larger and darker blue wing band, females have browner wings.

Spread-winged or emerald

Emerald damselfly

Emerald damselfly

Emerald damselfly
  • Emerald (Lestes sponsa): Metallic green in colour, it rests with the wings held out at an angle from the body.
  • Willow emerald (Lestes viridis) Similar to the emerald above, wing marking is pale brown with a black border.
  • Scarce emerald (Lestes dryas): A metallic green colour that rests with its wings half open.

White-legged

White-legged damselfly

White-legged damselfly

White-legged damselfly
  • White-legged (Platycnemis pennipes): Quite unlike any other UK damselfly due to the male's broad white legs and paired black markings on the abdomen. Also look for the rectangular cell at the wing base.

Other tips

Please bear in mind that dragonflies and damselflies change colour as they mature and that males can be easier to identify than females, as they have more obvious markings and are encountered more often, so it is recommended you have a field guide to hand.

The British Dragonfly Society have a comprehensive site for all things dragonfly and damselfly including conservation, research, recording and this guide to help with identification and a list of all our species. They also host a guide to identifying common dragonflies and damselflies in your garden that is also available from Natural England. While the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) also offers a visual guide to recognising common garden dragonflies.

The Dragonfly Project have a nice interactive guide to get you identifying a species in no time, which also includes a fun quiz. How many did you get right? There are also the latest observations on iSpot, an online resource for identifying and sharing nature.

Don't worry if you are without a garden pond as any river or body of water should have plenty of these amazing insects for you to practice your identification on.

How to attract dragonflies and damselflies

If you would like to attract these marvels of aerodynamic engineering to your garden then you really need a pond situated in the sun with clean water and shallow edges. Philippa Forrester has many hints and tips for making a mini pond as part of the Summer of Wildlife season.

The British Dragonfly Society have some good advice here and Pond Conservation can also help with encouraging them to your pond and which species you might expect to see.

If you are interested in creating a pond or boggy area for wildlife then Natural England have a comprehensive guide to get you started. Then there is our very own top ten list of plants every wildlife garden needs.

Along with helping to keep the levels of some less favourable garden insects down, dragonflies and damselflies are also perfect subjects for photography. If you want to have a go at snapping one of these wonders on your camera or phone, then these handy tips and tricks will help you to get the best out of your photographic equipment, whatever your level of expertise.

Want to help?

This year National Dragonfly Week runs from Saturday 20th July until Sunday 28th July. It is a series of walks and events to celebrate some of our most loved insects.

The British Dragonfly Society would like your dragonfly and damselfly sightings in their Dragonfly Recording Network to better understand these fascinating creatures and their conservation. Here is how you go about submitting them. You can also record your sightings with the BTO as part of their BirdTrack survey and there is a survey pack available from Pond Conservation.

If surveys are your thing, or you simply want to find out what else is available, we can show you how to do a wildlife survey and become a citizen scientist.

Test yourself

This mystery dragonfly or damselfly will really test your identification skills as it quite rare, do you know who I am?

Triangular yellow mark

Yellow mark

Colourless wings

Clear wings

Green eyes

Green eyes

They are only found in the fens and grazing marshes of Norfolk and Northeast Suffolk, click here for the answer.

Been inspired

Why not get outside and see how many different dragonflies and damselflies you can identify while checking out the nature activities happening near you.

Tell us about the dragonflies you have seen by joining the conversation with BBC Nature on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature.

And remember to share your photographs with us in the Springwatch Flickr group.

More on This Story

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