Female dragonflies would rather play dead than have sex with unattractive males John Flannery / Flickr

When faced with an amorous male who doesn't quite meet her standards, female dragonflies have several escape tactics. A newly discovered one is perhaps the most dramatic seen so far: falling from the sky and playing dead until the unappealing male goes away.

The bizarre behaviour was reported by ecologist Rassim Khelifa of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, who has studied dragonflies for 10 years.

Out of a total of 31 female moorland hawker dragonflies, Khelifa saw 27 of them playing dead to escape males' advances. The majority of the time – 21 in total – this was a successful tactic. Once the male had lost interest in the seemingly dead partner and flown off, the female would pick herself up and fly off as well.

Khelifa told the New Scientist he was surprised to see this behaviour.

"It's likely that females expanded its use to overcome male coercion," he said. "Females may only behave in this way if male harassment is intense."

It is the first time it has been seen in a species of dragonfly, but certain spiders, flies and mantises have been known to engage in similar tactics.

The behaviour is reported in a paper in the journal Ecology.