his face is very nearly
‘His face is very nearly only eye’. To look into the eyes of a dragonfly, to imagine seeing through them takes us beyond the limits of human eyesight and perception back to a more primordial way of seeing.
Unlike humans, whose eyes have only one lens, dragonflies have compound eyes. Their eyes are composed of 30,000 facets called ommatidia (from Greek ommat ‘eye’) and each has its own lens. This results in a single mosaic image, formed from many pixels of light.
Each ommatidium contains a series of light-sensitive cells called opsids. Whilst humans have only three types of opsins, allowing them to see green, red, and blue light, dragonflies have between 11 and 30. This means they see in ultra-multicolour and can perceive ultraviolet and polarised light.
Their swift judgement of the speed and direction of prey arises from them having three additional smaller eyes called ocelli, which transmit vision to the motor centres in just a fraction of a second. This is the basis of their skills as acrobatic hunters who are able to pick out a single insect from a swarm.
Their perception of time is also very different to that of humans. Whereas we see 60 images per second they see 300 images per second. This means they experience the world five times slower than us.
The earliest eyes began developing from simple eyespots – patches of photoreceptor cells – during the Cambrian explosion 500 million years ago. The first creatures to possess them were arthropods such as Fuxianhuia protensa and Anomolocaris (which, akin to dragonflies, had over 16, 700 lenses in each eye). The development of eyesight played a major role in the ‘arms race’ of the Cambrian explosion.
Dragonflies were amongst the first winged insects to evolve 300 million years ago during the Carboniferous period. That their eyes have remained unchanged suggests they have achieved a degree of perfection.
It is near-impossible to imagine seeing like a dragonfly – 30,000 pixels of light forming an ultra-multicoloured image 300 times per second. We can only guess at the brightness and intensity of their world. Apparently because the upward facing eye has receptors for only blue and UV the sky looks exceptionally bright. The longer light waves are picked up by the downward facing eye. Perhaps seeing not only more intensely but more slowly makes up for what seems like a short life to us.
Dragonflies not only look beautiful but what they see could be of a beauty far beyond human perception. In their ability to bring together what is fragmented and to be open to far more waves of light we glimpse an older and deeper way of perceiving. This might appear inaccessible until we remember that we have evolved from creatures like Fuxianhuia protensa, Anomolocaris, and Odanata (dragonflies).
The Brythonic bard, Taliesin, lists all the animals he has been – a blue salmon, a dog, a stag, a roebuck. This provides evidence for ancient British beliefs in reincarnation and may be suggestive of a shapeshifting tradition in which bards learnt to become and see through the eyes of different creatures.
For us, in the modern world, this would mean setting aside the presuppositions of our rational and scientific worldview and learning to listen to, become, and see through the eyes of the non-human world again. Perhaps, if we could relearn to see like a dragonfly, we might be able to bring together the fragments of our world in a new mosaic – a dragonfly vision- that could provide guidance for the future?
*I first saw this quote in the visitor centre at Risley Moss where I was doing a tree identification course with the Carbon Landscapes Partnership a couple of days ago.
Catherine Brahic, ‘Dragonfly Eyes See the World in Ultra-Multicolour’, New Scientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27015-dragonfly-eyes-see-the-world-in-ultra-multicolour/ (accessed 16/11/2019)
Grrlscientist, ‘30,000 Facets Give Dragonflies a Different Perspective: The Big Compound Eye in the Sky’, Science Blogs, https://scienceblogs.com/grrlscientist/2009/07/08/30000-facets-give-dragonflies (accessed 16/11/2019)
Kate Hazelhurst and Lisa Hendry, ‘Eyes on the prize: the evolution of vision’, Natural History Museum, https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/eyes-on-the-prize-evolution-of-vision.html (accessed 17/11/2019)
Marged Haycock (transl), Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, (CMCS, 2007)
Mashpi Lodge, ‘Dragonfly Vision’, National Geographic, https://www.mashpilodge.com/blog/dragonfly-vision/ (accessed 16/11/2019)
Roaring Earth Staff, ‘Dragonfly Experiences Time in Slow-Motion’, Roaring Earth, https://roaring.earth/dragonflies-see-time-slower/ (accessed 16/11/2019)