How to Identify Clubtail Dragonflies

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picture of a pacific clubtail

Second only to the skimmers (Liebellulidae) in number of species, approximately one hundred clubtail species (Gomphidae) fly around the water areas of North America.

Some, but not all clubtail dragonflies (Gomphidae) get the common name based on the, comparatively, irregular appearance of the tail at the bottom of the abdomen. Revisions within dragonfly taxonomy change, as scientists learn more about species and genera. Currently, clubtails divide into fourteen genera.

Species in the Gomphus genus account for perhaps one-third of the entire North American Gomphidae population.

Picture one shows a female Pacific Clubtail (Gomphus kurilis), a common early spring clubtail found near West Coast ponds.

Females have gray eyes and lack the club-like tail.

The majority of clubtail genera and species inhabit areas east of the Rocky Mountains. Apart from spinyleg and clubtail, Gomphidae species also go by common names such as snaketail, ringtail and grappletail.

None of the Gomphidae species exhibit widespread geographical ranges. Each genera and species chooses a particular ecosystem and tends to stay put. Unsurprisingly, they adapt to slow and fast moving water areas at all elevations.


picture of a male grappletail dragonfly

Calling western North American home, the Grappletail (Octogomphus specularis and North America’s sole Octogomphus species), inhabits cool mountain streams from British Columbia, south through California.

The second picture shows a side view of the male with white nose and white thorax stripes. There is also a yellow form.


picture of a two-striped forceptail dragonfly

At the opposite end of North America, three forceptail species (Aphylla) roam near slow moving waters.

The large size, blue eyes, and relatively bright colors of the Two-striped Forceptail (Aphylla williamsoni) in the fourth picture help to catch the eye of careful observers.

Males are a bit more colorful than females, having the reddish bottom of the abdomen contrast with the darker patterned abdominal top. The female abdomen is a more consistent dark color.

They fly from mid-summer to late fall.

picture of a Narrow-striped Forceptail (Aphylla protracta) dragonfly

Caught flying, the Narrow-striped Forceptail (Aphylla protracta) in picture five.


picture of a Great Basin Snaketail

Sixteen Snaketail Dragonfly species (Ophiogomphus) initially get recognised by the presence of a pronounced yellow and/or green thorax.

Snaketails adapt to multiple ecosystems, with species found in slow and fast moving water areas at most elevations.

The Great Basin Snaketail (Ophiogomphus morrisoni), for example, live in the high mountain areas of the Southern Cascades (Oregon) and Northern Sierra Nevada Mountains (California and Nevada).

Some individuals are also known to fly down to the valleys.

The top picture shows a side view of a male with a hint of the long patch of white along the side that starts at the top of the abdomen.

The yellow tips of the tail with their small, dark dots, are good field identification clues.

picture of a pale snaketail dragonfly

The Pale Snaketail (Ophiogomphus severus), on the other hand, prefers low elevation mountain streams throughout the West, partially into the Midwest.

Males and females look similar, with the green thorax serving as the primary field identification clue.

Bison Snaketails look similar, however they have a distinct brown stripe on the thorax.