Why Do Opossums Play Dead?


I found another opossum in my garden the other day. It was laying, doing what they do best, playing possum. I didn’t touch it because I didn’t think it was dead. When I went back an hour later, it had gone.

Live Opossum Playing Dead lying on the ground.

Opossums feign death as a mechanism to stop predators from attacking them. Playing dead is an involuntary reaction to fear.

I wanted to find out some more about opossums, and if they have any other mechanisms for defending against predators.

If you or someone you know loves opossums then you may like some of my favorite gifts that you can get on Amazon.

What Are Opossums?

The opossum is the only marsupial in North America. Marsupials are a group of mammals whose young ones are born while only partly developed.

They carry their young ones in pouches where the babies continue to develop for the remaining part of the gestation period.

Opossums are among approximately 100 species from the order Dipelphimorphia.

Opossums originated from South America and later migrated into North America after the two continents were connected. The only species found in North America is the Virginia opossum.

Young Opossum “Playing Possum”

They can generally be referred to as possum but should not be confused with the marsupial found in Australia. Both mammals are small to medium size and have an omnivorous diet. However, this is where the similarities end.

The Australian possum belongs to a different order from the North American marsupial. Even so, most Americans refer to the opossum as ‘possum,’ which is the shortened version of the word.

The opossum is found in parts of North America and Canada.  They can be found mostly east of New Mexico and Colorado. 

They have  grey fur and a white face. This animal also has a long pointed snout, round dark eyes and hairless tail.

People often consider this animal very strange. They are misunderstood most of the time, probably because of their unique characteristics. 

One of many odd traits is hanging upside down from its tail.

A close up of Baby Opossum learning to climb.

Opossums are quite peaceful creatures and tend to avoid any confrontations with other animals. They are slow-moving animals, and this makes them vulnerable to predators such as coyotes and foxes.

Opossums don’t have a long lifespan. To find out why, I have written an article which you may find interesting. You can find it here.

Why Do Opossums Play Dead?

Wild animals have various defense mechanisms, and the opossum has the oddest of all.  They play dead to avoid confrontations with predators. It is a common thing that opossums do whenever they feel cornered.

What many people don’t know is that this animal is not playing dead. This is an involuntary response to a stressful situation that causes the opossum to go into shock. The opossum has no control whatsoever over this reaction.

A baby Opossum feigning death in the garden.

When an opossum comes face to face with a predator, it faints or flops to the ground. This is what people call playing dead. The fear that comes with the prospect of having to confront a predator makes it go limp.

They can lay there in a comatose state for a time ranging from 40 minutes to 4 hours while just staring blankly ahead or with the eyes half-closed.

The amount of time the opossum will take in playing dead depends on the danger that confronted it. If the stress was too much, then it might stay in that state for a more extended period.

While in the catatonic state, an opossums body goes limp. The front feet form into balls, and drool may even run out of its mouth. It almost appears as rigor mortis has already begun.

Is This Mechanism Effective?

Playing dead is not only impressive but also practical. Opossums are not well adapted to fleeing or fighting off other animals. They move slowly, and this makes it very easy for potential predators to catch up to them.

Young opossum climbing on a tree

Furthermore, they have a peaceful personality and would rather not engage in a fight. This is why opossums need effective mechanisms to survive in the wild.

The fact that they mimic death is offputting to predators. Many  predators prefer live prey and would rarely go after a ‘dead’ opossum.

They will sniff or move it around and afterward simply leave it alone. Even when touched or attacked while in this state, the opossum doesn’t flinch.

This is because its entire body is limp, and hence it does not feel any pain. In this case, the instinctive response of these mammals truly saves their lives.

Odor

An opossum’s odd traits do not end with it playing dead. Laying down like a corpse is not enough. They goes as far as producing a smell that suggests it may be ‘decaying.’ This animal has anal glands that secrete large amounts of green mucus.

A Common opossum perched in a tree.

If it only pretended to be dead, there are still a few predators that would have the courage to feed on it. However, producing the smelly substance from its anus discourages many predators from eating it.

This is meant to deceive predators into thinking the body is already rotting.  Foxes or coyotes do not have the appetite to eat such an unsavory meal. They simply move forward and search for a better smelling animal to prey on. 

The opossum may not be the best looking animals in the universe, but they do have adapted excellently to predators.

What Other Defense Mechanisms Does The Opossum Use?

‘Playing possum’ is not usually the first response of the opossums when faced with danger. Threatened opossums growl loudly and deeply. They continue to raise the pitch of these sounds as a predator approaches. They also have sharp teeth that they will use to bite.

There are instances when opossums defecate on predators as a way of discouraging them from attacking.

Baby opossums have not adapted well to try playing dead.  Their brains are not well developed for this involuntary physiological response. For this reason, they don’t always react like this at the right moment. In many instances, baby opossums fail to play dead, falling prey to predators.

Have you ever found an opossum in your pool or pond? Find out how to remove them in an article I have written here.

Are Opossums The Only Animals Which Play Dead?

Playing dead is often linked to opossums. The expression ‘playing possum’ means lying down to avoid inevitable consequences or unpleasant situations. It is a common opossum characteristic that many people know about.

However, this behavior is not unique to only the opossum. There are several other animals that use this survival tactic. Some species of ducks also use this to evade predators, along with the hognose snake.

Risks Involved in Playing Dead

The opossum’s impressive ability to mimic death is often a beneficial strategy that saves their lives in the most difficult of situations. These animals are quite resistant to rabies and snake venom.

Opossums feed on snakes regularly, unafraid of a snakes poison.

They are immune to venom from almost every type of snake except for the coral snake.

Opossum (Didelphis marsupialis).

You are unlikely to encounter an opossum that has rabies. This is attributed to their lower body temperatures.  Therefore, their bodies don’t offer a suitable environment for the rabies virus to thrive.

With a lower risk of rabies, you would that most opossums would die a natural death.  Their seemingly odd behavior of playing dead may save them from predators, but, unfortunately, does not save them from collisions with vehicles.

If an opossum goes into a comatose state in the middle of the road, drivers may not swerve, thinking it’s dead. Many end up getting run over and dying. Being hit by a vehicle is a common way which these animals meet their demise.

There are many times people bury opossums alive after assuming they are dead. Since you may not know if it’s dead or not, it is best to leave them alone.  If you find an apparently dead opossum or an injured one, leave it in a quiet place that has a clear exit path.

Once it regains consciousness, the animal will discreetly escape.  You may be surprised when you go back later and it is not there.

Refrain from burying a limp opossum or throwing it in a garbage can.  Handle it with care to avoid inflicting any injuries on the unconscious animal. This way, we can save opossums from getting killed by people, even if we mean the best for them.

If you or someone you know loves opossums then you may like some of my favorite gifts that you can get on Amazon.

Unfortunately, opossums do not have a very long life. If you want to find out why I have written an article which you can find here.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

Recent Content