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.
Opossums feign death as a mechanism to stop predators from attacking them. Playing dead is an involuntary reaction to fear.
I wanted to learn more about opossums and if they have other mechanisms for defending against predators.
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 they continue to develop for the remainder of the gestation period.
Opossums are among approximately 100 species from the order Dipelphimorphia.
Opossums originated from South America and later migrated to North America after the two continents were connected. The only species found in North America is the Virginia opossum.
They can be referred to as possums but should not be confused with Australia’s marsupials. Both mammals are small to medium-sized 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. Most Americans refer to the opossum as possum, which is the shortened version of the word.
The opossum is found in parts of the U.S. and Canada. They can be located chiefly 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 a hairless tail.
People often consider this animal very strange. They are misunderstood most of the time, probably because of their unique characteristics.
Opossums are peaceful creatures and tend to avoid confrontations with other animals. They are slow-moving animals, making them vulnerable to predators such as coyotes and foxes.
Why Do Opossums Play Dead?
Wild animals have various defense mechanisms, and the opossum is the oddest. They play dead to avoid confrontations with predators. It is a common thing that opossums do whenever they feel cornered.
Many people don’t know that this animal is not playing dead. This involuntary response to a stressful situation causes the opossum to go into shock. The opossum has no control whatsoever over this reaction.
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 staring blankly ahead or with their eyes half-closed.
The amount of time opossums play dead depends on the danger that confronted them. If the stress is too much, it might stay in that state for extended periods.
While in the catatonic state, an opossum’s body goes limp. The front feet form into balls, and drool may even run out of its mouth. It almost appears as if 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, making it very easy for potential predators to catch up to them.
Furthermore, they have friendly personalities and would rather not 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 rarely go after a ‘dead’ opossum.
They will sniff or move it around and afterward leave it alone. When touched or attacked while in this state, the opossum doesn’t flinch.
This is because its entire body is limp, so it does not feel any pain. In this case, the automatic response of these mammals truly saves their lives.
An opossum’s odd traits do not end with it playing dead. Laying down like a corpse is not enough. They go as far as producing a smell that suggests it may be ‘decaying.’ This animal has anal glands that secrete large amounts of green mucus.
If it only pretended to be dead, a few predators still 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 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 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 to discourage 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.
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. Several other animals use this survival tactic. Some 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 challenging situations. These animals are pretty resistant to rabies and snake venom.
Opossums feed on snakes regularly, immune to venom. They are resistant to poison from almost every type except the coral snake.
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 assume 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 common for these animals to 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, it is best to leave them alone. If you find a dead opossum or an injured one, leave it in a quiet place with 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.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.