Dragonflies a marvel for scientists and … samurai

I luckily caught a glimpse of this beautiful blue dragonfly on my last rock climbing trip in Squamish, BC. If you’ve seen a dragonfly in action, it speedily buzzes past, stops to hover a bit, and continues darting here and there. When it finds a place to land, it slowly and gracefully flaps its four wings up and down, but as soon as you get near it’s gone off into the air.

Dragonfly in arms reach. Photo by Maki Sumitani.
Dragonfly in arms reach. Photo by Maki Sumitani.

The way a dragonfly flies actually gave it a symbolic significance in Japanese culture. During my time training in martial arts, I’ve encountered several swords that use the dragonfly as a motif. Among the Sengoku era warriors, the dragonfly was called the “victory insect” (勝虫 kachimushi). A dragonfly is fast and aggressive when chasing after their prey, and were known to only fly forwards and never retreat. This made a dragonfly a model of a warriors’ brave spirit when faced with an enemy, and thus as a sign of victory.

However, previous beliefs were challenged when researchers discovered that dragonflies are capable of incredible maneuvers in the air: they can move their 4 wings separately, allowing them to hover and even fly backwards. As far as we know, dragonflies are the only insect that are capable of such fine control of its wings.

Are the swordsmen going to be upset that dragonflies don’t always just fly forwards? Not to worry, dragonflies are territorial and you would rarely see them retreat and abandon their grounds. Dragonflies can still hold the symbolic meaning the ancient warriors respected. However, scientists showed that what was believed to be impossible – a backwards flight – actually happens right in front of our eyes, and the study inspired a whole new field of flight and motion physics to study and apply them to modern mechanics.

Thanks to Beaty Biodiversity Museum Interpreter Nancy and training session team for helping me put this story together and for helping to fact check this!

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