The Power of Small Eyes: Observation of Arthropods

No matter what is happening in the world, most of the time you can go right outside and find a bug. We get sent lots of pictures and questions on social media by people asking us for help identifying insects. Since some arthropods are only found in certain terrains, climates or areas of the world, and we can’t identify all of them, one of the things we love to do is help people hone their science skills and use critical thinking when they see an arthropod. 

We always like to start with the skill of observation. For this post we will focus on an insect that almost everyone can identify- a dragonfly! When you look at a dragonfly’s wings, for example, can they tell you a lot about where this animal might be found? Do these wings look like they can handle living under ground or a rosebush? No. These wings don’t fold. They are out and wide and fragile. They are not protected by a hard outer casing. These wings are made for flying in open spaces. Wide open sky. You can’t hem a dragonfly in- they are sky beasts! 

But there are other insects that look a lot like dragonflies! So now you have to know a bit more about morphological characteristics that dragonflies have. 

If you see another insect that looks like a dragonfly how can you tell what it is?

On the left is a damselfly and on the right is a dragonfly.

In the above picture of a damselfly, you can really see that head shape with the eyes separated whereas you can see in the picture below the dragonfly’s eyes almost make up the whole head (we think they look lie little basketball heads).

If you see an flying insect that has very long lacy wings with medium length antennae that are slightly thickened toward the ends, that is an antlion! You can also tell by how they fly- antlions are weak, clumsy fliers compared with the agility and speed of a dragonfly. 

Now look at the wing veins!

These are the wing veins on a dragonfly that we found in the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest. You can tell that, while there are many veins and cells in the membranous wing it’s nothing compared to the venation in the antlion wings in the picture below!

Insects and other arthropods are found in every habitat on the planet. If you look at their bodies you might be able to guess where they live or what they eat.

Some things to look for: 

  • Are there wings? What is their shape?
  • Can I see the mouthparts? What shape are they? What might they eat? 
  • What are the legs like? Are they shaped  for jumping, digging or some other movement?

If you take a picture of an insect or arthropod and ou don’t know what it is, you can upload it to iNaturalist and people (sometimes scientists and other experts) will help you identify it!

Observation is a great way to engage with these incredible animals. Here’s an exercise to help you get your ‘small eyes on.’ 

Click to Enlarge


We call getting into bugs putting your small eyes on. Use a magnifying glass or a digital microscope. We love the MicroDirect HD by Celestron!