You may have seen their antics on a languid summer day: Somewhere on the reedy fringes of a pond, a male dasher dragonfly pursuing a female, like two hyphens of lightning. Or a tiger-striped spiketail diving, twirling, flashing its gossamer wings, then in a blink, meeting a mate to ascend together into the ether. Or a linked pair of brilliant green darners hovering as one over the dark water, the male towing the female, darting forward, then back, then straight up with the kind of aerial agility of which we masters of the helicopter can only dream.
From a distance, dragonfly rituals of courtship and sex look harmless, even romantic. But a close look at their mating game reveals a harsher tale of sexual harassment and conflict. Take the jewelwing Calopteryx splendens. Some males dispense with courtship altogether and just snatch unwary females while they're warming in the sun—even immature ones, shimmer-fresh after emergence from their larval youth. Others, called "stealers," attack and split mating pairs by ramming, pulling, and biting them; still others, "water lurkers," grab a female in the midst of egg laying so they can have their way with her, even if she drowns in the process. Females, for their part, attempt to escape this boorish behavior by flipping, zigzagging, spiraling upward or downward, submerging in water, fleeing at high speed, or fighting back, sometimes murderously.