Common whitetail (Plathemis lydia)

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Common whitetail

Top facts

  • While the male common whitetail does indeed have a chalky white abdomen, the female is generally brown with white spots down each side.
  • An aerial predator, the common whitetail feeds on small insects which it catches mid-air.
  • Reproductive adult common whitetails only live for around 36 days.
  • The male common whitetail is aggressive and territorial during the breeding season, performing a ‘duel flight’ with any intruding males.
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Common whitetail fact file

Common whitetail description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumArthropoda
ClassInsecta
OrderOdonata
FamilyLibellulidae
Genus (1)

A stout, medium-sized dragonfly (2) (3), the common whitetail (Plathemis lydia) is widespread throughout North America (4). It is an unmistakeable species, easily recognised by the pronounced chalky white colouration that is present on the broad abdomen of the mature male (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7).

The male common whitetail has wide, black bands on its wings (2), consisting of a broad band or crossband near the wing tip and a small narrow band or streak at the base of the wing (4) (5). The black stripe on each hind wing is bordered by small triangles of white at the base (2). The head, eyes and thorax of the male common whitetail are dark brown, and faint pale stripes are typically visible on each side of the thorax (2) (3) (4).

Immature male common whitetails are similar to the mature male and possess the typical male wing pattern, but lack the white colouration on the abdomen. The abdomen is instead covered with creamy-white spots which form a distinctly broken chain along each side (2). The abdomen becomes bluish-white and then white as the dragonfly matures (4).

The face, eyes and thorax of the female common whitetail are brown, and the thorax has two white stripes on the sides which become yellow at the ends. The female’s abdomen lacks the chalky white colouration seen in the male, being brown with white or pale yellow spots on each side. The spots form diagonal lines (2) (4), giving a saw-toothed appearance (3). The wing pattern of the female is very different to that of the male, with three dark spots or patches on each wing (2) (3) (4).

Also known as
white-tailed skimmer.
Synonyms
Libellula lydia.
Size
Length: 4.25 - 4.75 cm (2)
Wingspan: 6.5 - 7.5 cm (2)
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Common whitetail biology

The common whitetail has a long flight season, from early spring to late autumn (2), although the exact length of the season varies depending on the location (4) (7). This dragonfly feeds on small insects which it captures during flight (4).

Male common whitetails are highly territorial during the breeding season. An adult male will defend its mating territory along the edge of a pond, lake or slow-moving stream (8), perching along the water’s edge and patrolling the shore to drive off other males (4).

The male performs a ritualised aggressive display (9), known as a ‘duel flight’ (10), when defending its territory (9). The territory holder and the intruding male will face each other and mutually display (11), elevating their abdomens to show the characteristic chalky white colouration (4) (9) (10) (11), and engaging in a sequence of pursuit and retreat around the territory (4) (9).

The success of the male’s territorial display is correlated with the whiteness of the abdomen, with older, more mature males generally being more successful than young, immature males (11). However, territorial defence is very energetically expensive (8), and male common whitetails are only able to maintain their territories for several hours each day (4) (8). This results in complex territorial patterns, whereby up to seven or more males may share and defend a single territory at different times throughout the day (8). Larger males typically defend larger territories (4).

The female common whitetail visits breeding sites every few days, usually around midday (4), and will frequently reject one or more mating attempts before finally copulating (8). Copulation is very brief, lasting only a few seconds, and is followed immediately by oviposition (4) (8). The female taps the water with her ovipositor (4) (7) (8), laying around 25 to 50 eggs with each tap. The female may deposit up to 1,000 eggs in total, with the eggs generally laid close to floating vegetation or clumps of mud (4). During oviposition, the female is usually guarded by the male, who will hover just above the female as the eggs are laid (4) (8). Reproductive adult common whitetails may live for up to 36 days (4).

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Common whitetail range

The common whitetail occurs throughout the United States and southern Canada (5)

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Common whitetail habitat

The common whitetail is frequently found close to water, usually around lakes, ponds and slow-flowing streams (3) (4) (5) (7). It also occurs around other still water bodies (6), including ditches, marshes and wetland meadows (3) (5) (7). This species is particularly common at nutrient-poor lakes and ponds (7), and is tolerant of polluted water and disturbed, muddy sites (3).

This dragonfly is commonly observed perching slightly away from the water’s edge, often on the ground or on rocks and logs, usually in fairly open habitats (4).

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Common whitetail status

The common whitetail has yet to be classified by the IUCN.

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Common whitetail threats

The common whitetail is not known to be facing any specific threats.

However, dragonflies in general are heavily affected by pollution, particularly from sewage and industrial wastes, fertiliser run-off and pesticide use. The damming of rivers for hydroelectric schemes and water supplies can have a detrimental impact on dragonfly populations, while drainage and excessive water extraction can also negatively affect freshwater habitats and the species that depend on them (12).  

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Common whitetail conservation

There are currently no known specific conservation measures in place for the common whitetail.

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Find out more

Find out more about conservation of dragonflies:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Abdomen
In arthropods (crustaceans, insects and arachnids) the abdomen is the hind region of the body, which is usually segmented to a degree (but not visibly in most spiders). In crustacea (such as crabs), some of the limbs attach to the abdomen; in insects the limbs are attached to the thorax (the part of the body nearest to the head) and not the abdomen.
Oviposition
Egg-laying in insects.
Ovipositor
The egg-laying organ of a female insect, consisting of a tube-like structure at the end of the abdomen. In worker bees and non-reproductive female wasps, it is modified into a sting.
Territorial
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
Thorax
Part of the body located between the head and the abdomen in animals. In insects, the three segments between the head and the abdomen, each of which has a pair of legs. In vertebrates the thorax contains the heart and the lungs.
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References

  1. Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) (June, 2012)
    http://www.itis.gov/   
  2. Manolis, T.D. (2003) Dragonflies and Damselflies of California. University of California Press, Berkeley, California.
  3. Berger, C. (2004) Dragonflies: Wild Guide. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
  4. Paulson, D. (2009) Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
  5. Eaton, E.R., Kaufman, K. and Bowers, R. (2007) Field Guide to Insects of North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  6. Dunn, G.A. (1996) Insects of the Great Lakes Region. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
  7. Paulson, D. (2011) Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
  8. Koenig, W.D. (1990) Territory size and duration in the white-tailed skimmer Plathemis lydia (Odonata: Libellulidae). Journal of Animal Ecology, 59(1): 317-333.
  9. Schowalter, T.D. (2011) Insect Ecology: An Ecosystem Approach. Academic Press, London.
  10. Itō, Y. (1980) Comparative Ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  11. Matthews, R.W. and Matthews, J.R. (2009) Insect Behaviour. Springer, London.
  12. Moore, N.W. (1997) Dragonflies - Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN/SSC Odonata Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge. Available at:
    http://data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/1997-042.pdf
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Common whitetail  
Common whitetail

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