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Why Female Dragonflies Fake Death to Avoid Males


A male moorland hawker dragonfly and/or sexual predator.
A male moorland hawker dragonfly and/or sexual predator. Jens Buurgaard Nielsen/CC BY-SA 3.0

“I’m used to dealing with angry, aggressive, dysfunctional men—i.e., men,” Selina Meyer, the fictional politician in HBO’s Veep, declared in the show’s season-four premiere. It turns out female dragonflies may sympathize.

That’s because, according to new research, female moorland hawker dragonflies sometimes drop from the air and play dead when they see an eager male approaching—a strategy designed to protect them from what would constitute a heinous sex crime in the human world.

Among some dragonfly species, male mates hang around to guard egg-laying females. Moorland hawker females, on the contrary, are on their own, and are therefore vulnerable to harassment. And the consequences for them are severe, as another mating encounter could damage their reproductive tracts. Playing dead appears to be a common tactic in the face of intense attention from males, Rassim Khelifa of the University of Zurich told New Scientist. Of the 31 females he observed, 27 attempted the tactic and 21 of them were successful in fending off the unwanted advances.

Female dragonflies, in other words, are used to dealing with angry, aggressive, sexually predatory male dragonflies—i.e., male dragonflies.