This ShukerNature blog article of mine documents an entomological enigma of the cryptozoological kind that has long fascinated, me but which I've never previously blogged about. Namely, the extraordinary possibility that extra-large dragonflies, veritable giants in some cases, exist unrecognised by science in our modern-day world. Consequently, I have gathered here an exclusive selection of such reports for your perusal. First of all, however, I'd like to set the scene for them by presenting a couple of comparable examples plucked from traditional folklore and medieval fancy.
GIANT DRAGONFLIES IN FOLKLORE
On 16 August 2015, I documented here on ShukerNature (and subsequently redocumented in expanded form within the first of my ShukerNature compendium books, ShukerNature Book 1: Antlered Elephants, Locust Dragons, and Other Cryptic Blog Beasts, 2019), a fascinating but thoroughly baffling centuries-old engraving illustrating a mysterious beast so bizarre in appearance that I dubbed it the locust dragon (click here to view my original blog article concerning it).
The original source of this specific engraving was a series of prints produced in Antwerp, Belgium, by Flemish engraver Nicolaes de Bruyn (1571-1656) in 1594 that depicted various flying creatures.
Although he is best known for his many biblically-themed engravings and his large engraved landscapes reproducing designs and paintings by other artists, de Bruyn produced approximately 400 works in total, including a number that featured animals.
The series containing the locust dragon was entitled Volatilium Varii Generis Effigies ('Pictures of Flying Creatures of Varied Kinds'), and was first published by Ahasuerus van Londerseel (1572-1635) of Amsterdam.
It was subsequently reissued (with van Londerseel's name neatly trimmed off!) by Carel Allard in 1663 (or shortly after – there are conflicting accounts concerning this detail).
My investigation of what the locust dragon might conceivably have been attracted a number of replies from readers, posted beneath my blog article, including one whose subject was entirely new to me and very intriguing.
Posted on 30 August 2015 by a reader with the memorable Google username Dracula van Helsing, it mentioned that de Bruyn's grotesque locust dragon reminded him of a legend from Cantabria, a region in northern Spain, concerning certain horse-like demonic dragonflies known as Caballucos (aka Caballitos) del Diablu ('little horses of the devil', despite being said to be at least as big as real horses!).
Here is Wikipedia's then-current entry on these very intriguing yet little-known mythical beasts, which has since been reworded somewhat and expanded (see also below), but was originally derived from Manuel Llano Merino's book Mitos y Leyendas de Cantabria, published in 2001:
On St John's Eve (June 23), when the people make bonfires to purify their souls, giant dragonflies appear amongst the ashes. These dragonflies - the Caballucos - are the souls of sinners, and they come to release their fury over a year's worth of sins with fire and terrifying screams.
The Caballucos del Diablu appear in a variety of colors, each one being the soul of a different sinner. The red horse was a man who lent money to farmers and then used dirty tricks to steal their properties; the white one a miller who stole many thousands of dollars from his master; the black one a hermit who played tricks on people; the yellow one a corrupt judge; the blue one an innkeeper; and the orange one a child who abused his parents.
And here is this entry's present version, i.e. as of today, 28 November 2023:
On St John's Eve (June 23) at night; when the people make bonfires to purify their souls, horses (Percheron purebred) with damselfly wings [damselflies are slender-bodied dragonfly species], black manes and foaming mouths appear amongst the ashes. These stallions – the Caballucos – are the souls of sinners, damned to roam Cantabria for eternity, come to release their fury over a year's worth of sins, creating a rumbling explosion with fire accompanied by terrifying screams.
The Caballucos del Diablu appear in a variety of colors, each one being the soul of a different sinner, as legends highlight. The red horse was a man who lent money to farmers and then used dirty tricks to steal their properties; the white one a miller who stole many thousands of dollars from his master; the black one a hermit who played tricks on people; the yellow one a corrupt judge; the blue one an innkeeper; and the orange one a child who abused his parents; the green one a lord who possessed many lands and dishonoured plenty of young women. It is said that the Devil himself roams the streets riding the red fire-breathing steed, the sturdiest and most powerful who leads the raid, while other demons ride the rest. The force in their stomping is such that their horseshoes leave prints on rocks, as if they were freshly ploughed soil. They have gleaming eyes, and blow a strong wind with their nostrils to try impeding lovers from giving corsages to the girls. The huffs, as cold as winter, are strong enough to make leaves fall from trees and bushes. The horses’s food are shamrocks, with they eat tastefully, probably to prevent the seekers who come out at night from finding any. The Caballucos pounce on everyone they come across, the only things that repels them is a bunch of vervain that the person can carry along; the plant has to be collected the day before though, or should be placed next to St John’s fire, to which they won’t come near. The locals note that sometimes, after becoming worn out by the search, the Caballucos stop to rest and their saliva drips on the ground, and turns into gold ingots. Whoever takes them will be made extremely wealthy, but will descent straight to hell after death.
Yet although giant dragonflies of equine appearance would undoubtedly be eyecatching in their own right if such creatures ever existed in reality as opposed to mere mythology, they would not bear any tangible resemblance to the enigmatic entity upon which my locust dragon investigations have been focused.
Interestingly, what has been described by some writers as a four-legged, horse-headed dragonfly is also portrayed in the Luttrell Psalter, an English illuminated manuscript dating from c.1325-1340.
However, as can readily be perceived here, the illustration of this incongruous insect bears no resemblance to those of the locust dragon.
But that is still not all as far as controversial giant dragonflies or dragonfly-like mystery beasts of the decidedly daunting kind are concerned.
GIANT DRAGONFLIES IN FACT?
One of the fantastical lands visited by physician Dr Lemuel Gulliver in Jonathan Swift's famous satirical fantasy novel Gulliver's Travels (1726) is Brobdingnag, a remote, hitherto-unexplored peninsula of the western USA, whose human inhabitants and wildlife are all of gigantic proportions.
Accordingly, in real life the adjective 'Brobdingnagian' is often applied to anything of extraordinarily large size – and could therefore be definitely applied in relation to certain reports in the cryptozoology archives of supposedly real but unequivocally oversized dragonflies.
One of these was posted on Lon Strickler's Phantoms and Monsters website, and reads as follows:
Me and my younger brother saw a huge dragonfly spanning well over a foot and half long in Bolton, England in 2002. It must have been over an inch in diameter as well at the centre. I would have questioned myself but as it was witnessed by someone else too. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just me seeing things. Sometimes I think was it an RC [radio/remote-controlled] helicopter? But no way could it move with such swiftness, agility and silence especially with 2002 technology. I went to the Manchester museum and checked with the insect experts and they said it sounds like you’ve seen something from the prehistoric and that no species of dragonfly that exist today are that large. It’s not a giant bird but has anyone ever seen these massive dragonflies? I would love some confirmation some more witnesses across the world.
Two years after this sighting, two comparable ones were posted online in the forum of the Charles Fort Institute's website on the very same day, 25 July 2004. One of these was posted by someone I know personally, a well-respected naturalist named Oll Lewis. Here is his typically matter-of-fact account of his encounter, which took place in the Vale of Glamorgan, Wales:
I have seen a large dragonfly before, I live near a large country park with 2 huge lakes and extensive reed beds so if there were an ideal place for dragonfly and damselfly spotting, that's it. The largest dragonfly I observed was in Cosmeston Lakes Country Park [and] had a wingspan of at least 1/2 a meter [50 cm] skimming over the surface of the lake about 3 metres from the bank. It was brownish yellow in colour and apart from its size quite unremarkable.
I subsequently learned from Oll that he had reported his sighting to a university-based entomology professor, who blithely discounted it. The longest-bodied dragonfly native to the UK is the golden-ringed dragonfly Cordulegaster boltonii, whose slender elongate body can reach almost 8.5 cm long in adult females with fully-formed ovipositors, and whose wingspan can be as much as 10 cm, The largest UK dragonfly species in terms of wingspan is the emperor dragonfly Anax imperator, whose body averages around 8 cm long but its wingspan is up to 10.5 cm. However, these species' impressive dimensions still fall far short of those for the two mystery British specimens described above.
The second Charles Fort Institute forum report was posted by a contributor with the username laphip. Here it is:
When I was around nine years old me and my two sisters watched a dragonfly with a body about half a metre long circle around our backyard just above the height of our bungalow (in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). When we told our mom about it, she just said it must've been a toy plane shaped like a dragonfly. It looked quite naturally an insect to me, and it made no sound. Would a dragonfly of that size make or not make noise in flight? Can toy remote controlled planes be soundless?
Due to their rapid aerial movements and continual hawking, the size of these insects is notoriously difficult to gauge accurately, especially by eyewitnesses not familiar with them. So overestimation of size would not be difficult. Having said that, the above-noted mentions of remote/radio-controlled aircraft may well be relevant, especially in light of an unexpected but fascinating discovery that I made recently, and which I'll reveal later here.
Another report, forwarded to me in 2001 by Strange Magazine's founding editor, the late Mark Chorvinsky, consists of a report e-mailed to him by correspondent Victor Engel. It reads as follows:
You may be interested in an expedition I plan on this summer. In May/June 1974 while driving through Mexico, I saw the largest dragonfly I've ever seen. At the time I estimated its wingspan at 14 inches. Since that time, I've not seriously searched for it again, but I have done some research. I've contacted dragonfly experts and other insect experts. The general consensus in the scientific community is that while there used to be dragonflies of that size, and, in fact, even larger, they don't, and cannot exist today. The reason cited for believing they cannot exist today is that the oxygen content of the atmosphere is too low to support the high metabolism required for the dragonfly to catch its prey. Then I got in touch with Dr Gilbert, of the University of Texas at Austin, who is doing research with imported fire ants and their parasitic phorid flies. He gave me two well thought-out lists. One was a list of all the reasons why such a dragonfly cannot exist. The other was a list of reasons why such an insect could possibly exist. Anyway, I'm so convinced at what I saw in the 70s that now I'm making a special trip just to find one again.
As Engel correctly mentions, back in ancient prehistoric times there were dragonflies – or, to be precise, dragonfly-resembling insects – that were even bigger than the size estimate offered by him for his Mexican mystery specimen. These veritable giants are known as griffinflies, in homage to those legendary winged monsters the griffins, Originally housed together with the true dragonflies and damselflies within the taxonomic order Odonata, griffinflies are nowadays housed in a separate, extinct order, Meganisoptera.
Indeed, fossil remains of Meganeura monyi, a dragonfly that lived approximately 300 million years ago during the late Carboniferous Era in what is today France, indicate that it sported a spectacular wingspan of up to 29.5 in.
Moreover, Meganeuropsis permiana, living during the early Permian Era, sported a comparable wingspan, thereby making these the largest insect species, past or present, currently known to science.
Today, conversely, the largest Odonata member is the giant blue damselfly Megalopropus caeruleata, a damselfly native to Central and South America, whose wingspan measures up to 7.52 in, and whose body length is up to 4.72 in. Hence Engel's specimen, if accurately estimated, would have a wingspan twice this.
In a JournalnewsOnline article of 15 February 2022, veteran mystery beast investigator Brent Swancer recalled being told by a supposed giant dragonfly eyewitness that he and a friend had been hiking together through Florida's famous Everglades National Park on a clear day when they saw what seemed at first to be a bird, but then they saw that it had four beating wings, not two, and that its metallic green body was very elongate, measuring over 1 ft long. Moreover, as they watched, the creature came close enough for them to discern the multi-faceted form of its eyes, as characteristically exhibited by the compound eyes of adult insects, hovering in front of them for a moment before it swooped off again, its flight entirely silent throughout.
It is well known that the tracheal-based respiratory system of insects, whose internal network of minute cell-penetrating, air-transporting tubes is only capable of transporting oxygen over tiny distances, precludes these creatures from attaining the gargantuan sizes beloved of sci-fi movie makers, and even from those attained by the long-demised griffinflies, as the oxygen content of the atmosphere that existed way back in their time was much greater than it is today.
Bearing this in mind, therefore, what on earth – or anywhere else, for that matter! – can we say about the absolutely ginormous dragonfly lookalikes that a reader with the username PoeticsOfBigfoot posting to the cryptozoology website Cryptomundo on 28 June 2013 claimed to have observed over a lengthy period one evening in, fittingly, Texas?
Giant insects are more common in the Southwest than people realize. I saw huge dragonfly-like insects around sundown near Terlingua TX once. I estimate they were eight feet long or so, with about the same wingspan. They had some sort of long whip-like appendage at their posterior end, a little longer than their bodies, that arced upward. I saw three of them over a two-hour time span.
Male dragonflies do possess a pair of claspers at the tip of their most posterior abdominal segment, and females bear a single circus there, but these are nowhere near as long as the insects' bodies. So too did griffinflies, but with the same proviso. Moreover, for the respiratory reasons mentioned above, an 8-ft-long insect living today, most especially one as metabolically active as a fast-flying dragonfly, would be a physiological impossibility.
And even if it wasn't, such a spectacular, readily visible entity native to North America would assuredly have been discovered, described, and fully documented by science long ago. So although dragonflies are predatory, I wouldn't worry unduly about being dive-bombed any time soon by the terrorflies of Terlingua!
Unless, of course, this titanic trio had winged their way to Texas from Brobdingnag's secluded peninsula??? Gulliver's remarkable travels and his numerous hair-raising experiences during them had so transformed his personality that after he finally returned safely home, he became a recluse. After encountering monsters like these, can you blame him??
Seriously, however, I have recently learned to my surprise but delight that giant radio-controlled dragonfly models not only exist but be readily purchased on certain websites – so might these fascinating fliers explain such sightings, including laphip's noted earlier here, especially if they were spied in dim light conditions? Then again, eyewitnesses of such creatures have often claimed that their flight was totally silent, thus suggesting that they weren't remote-controlled aircraft or drones after all.
In short, unless we dismiss all such reports as involving hoaxes, misidentifications of non-insect aerial creatures, or exaggerated size estimates of bona fide dragonflies, the mystery of these giant flying insects remains very much up in the air – as indeed do they!
For my expanded coverage of the locust dragon, be sure to check out ShukerNature Book 1, whose front cover sports a gorgeous full-colour painting by longstanding friend and superb artist Anthony Walls, in which he portrays me with said locust dragon perching contentedly on my shoulder: