NATURE, famously, has a way of exploiting every opportunity for life that our world presents. Animals have found a way to live in a staggering range of habitats – walking on the surface of the Earth, burrowing underneath it, swimming in the water that surrounds it and even flying in the air above it.

Last week I spent the best part of an hour watching a group of 10 – 15 insects that were using a small woodland pool in Dalby Forest as home.

Despite this choice, none of them were able to swim or breathe underwater, they couldn’t walk on the land next to the pool (even though they possessed the regulation six insect legs) and they weren’t capable of flying. Their trick was in choosing not to live in, by or over the water but on it.

Pond skaters (perfect name by the way) are able to slide around on the surface of still water because of some high-tech physiology in their legs - any other insect of the same size or weight attempting to land or stand on the surface of a pond would immediately sink below the surface.

Pond skaters’ legs are covered with microscopic hairs that are waxy and so repel water. Consequently they don’t puncture the fragile surface tension “membrane” of the water but they do bend it, causing a visible dimple around each foot.

It’s one thing being able to stand on liquid water but another entirely to move around under control and, as their name suggests, pond skaters are experts at it.

Four of their six legs are used as skates, the middle pair acting as powerful forward propellers and the rear pair working as rudders, to steer with, and brakes.

The animal’s short, front pair of legs are effectively arms, used for grabbing anything that needs getting hold of, like an anchoring plant stem, a mate or a victim… because pond skaters are active predators.

Any small, land or airborne creature that accidentally ends up in the pool is likely to struggle on the surface.

The resulting ripples will be detected by sensitive receptors in those clever legs and the skater will home in on its prey.

During my poolside vigil in Dalby Forest I actually witnessed this occurrence when a small moth crash-landed into the water. At least three pond skaters raced across the water’s surface towards the floundering creature and the first one there claimed the prize, spinning around to shield its meal from unwelcome rivals. The weakening moth was dispatched by a fatal stab from the predators beak. In common with all other Hemiptera (true bugs) pond skaters have hypodermic-like piercing mouthparts, through which digestive enzymes are first injected and then the resulting “moth soup” is sucked back in… nice.

Pond skaters aren’t totally reliant on insect flying accidents for their food though; occasionally some of the creatures in the pool below unwittingly make themselves available.

The water in stagnant pools can be very low in dissolved oxygen so some animals, like midge and mosquito larvae, need to come to the surface periodically to take a few breaths of fresh air. When they poke their breathing siphons up through the surface tension barrier, pond skaters are often there waiting to grab it and yank the unfortunate creature out of the water.

Less skater-friendly things can also appear from the depths. In larger bodies of water, fish can easily snatch unwary individuals but in my very small Dalby pool it was newts that were the major hazard. I was alerted to their surprising presence when one wriggled to the surface to breathe and the whole swarm of pond skaters skittered away in a panic.

While I was watching life in the pool, I got to thinking about how my pond skaters had got there in the first place and what would happen to them if the pool dried up later in the summer.

Subsequent research revealed that although the individuals I had observed had no wings, if they detect a drop in water levels they will lay a batch of eggs that will hatch into winged pond skaters. This next generation will fly from the dwindling puddle and find other pools to colonise. Astonishing.