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Much of our understanding of the control and dynamics of animal movement derives from controlled laboratory experiments. While many aspects of animal movement can be probed only in these settings, a more complete understanding of animal locomotion may be gained by linking experiments on relatively simple motions in the laboratory to studies of more complex behaviours in natural settings. To demonstrate the utility of this approach, we examined the effects of wing damage on dragonfly flight performance in both a laboratory drop–escape response and the more natural context of aerial predation. The laboratory experiment shows that hindwing area loss reduces vertical acceleration and average flight velocity, and the predation experiment demonstrates that this type of wing damage results in a significant decline in capture success. Taken together, these results suggest that wing damage may take a serious toll on wild dragonflies, potentially reducing both reproductive success and survival.