A-z - Animals

Why do possums play dead?

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key point

  • Playing dead is the most effective way to keep a possum safe.
  • Not only do opossums play dead to protect themselves, they also let out low-pitched growls as a warning.
  • Opossums not only lie down and play dead, they actually look dead. Their eyes glaze over and become as rigid as a corpse.

Have you ever heard of playing possum ? This refers to a specific behavior of possums (not possums). When a possum feels threatened by an animal or a human, it can respond in an unusual way. It's playing dead. This is very different from other animals that try to run away, stay put, or even become aggressive and continue to attack. That's part of what makes this animal so much fun.

So why do opossums play dead? How long are they still on the ground? Is this a successful strategy for fighting predator attacks? Read on to get answers to these questions and learn more about this enigmatic marsupial.

Why do possums play dead?

Possums really don't pose a serious threat to other animals. An adult animal measures 21 to 36 inches long including tail and weighs 4 to 15 pounds. Simply put, these are small mammals. Plus, they're slow and clumsy, making them less likely to escape threats.

Playing dead is the most effective way for possums to protect themselves from predators. Most predators do not want to eat an animal that is already dead. So if they see the lifeless carcass of a possum on the ground, they usually move on.

Possums play with dead possums in the grass
Playing dead is an involuntary response in possums. The pressure of the opossum's confrontation sent him into shock.

©iStock.com/ScrappinStacy

What does a possum playing dead look like?

When a possum plays dead, it doesn't just fall to the ground. This mammal literally died! Its feet curled up into little balls, its body stiffened. It opened its mouth as if it had just breathed its last. The marsupial might even start drooling.

Also, its eyes were glazed like those of a lifeless creature. Predators can sniff it, turn its body over, or push it to the ground. A possum that is playing dead will not move or get up and try to escape.

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In addition to looking dead, possums also smell dead. When they play dead, they release a fluid from a gland near their tail. The slime stinks of decay. This is all the more reason for predators to move along trails. The dead appearance combined with the bad smell has helped countless possums escape capture.

Is playing dead the only defense a possum has?

no. While the ability to play dead is an effective way to deal with predators, opossums have a few other defenses.

When threatened by a smaller predator, a possum may growl to scare it away. The long-tailed animal could also bare its very sharp teeth when threatened. Whether a possum growls or plays dead depends on how threatened it feels.

Among mammals, the Virginia opossum is known to die defensively. "Playing possum" is an idiom that means playing dead. It comes from a trait of the Virginia opossum, which is known to feign death when threatened. Possums can play dead for about 40 minutes to four hours.

possum playing dead
Virginia possum on a fence at night. The Virginia (or common) opossum is the only marsupial in North America. A marsupial is a mammal that has a pouch in which it carries its young.

© iStock.com/randimal

What animal is the natural enemy of possums?

Opossums live in woods and forests. Some of their predators share this habitat, including foxes, coyotes, owls, and hawks. They can also be attacked by domestic cats and dogs.

Humans are also a threat to these animals. Opossums can find food almost anywhere, including near streams, fields, woodlands, trash cans and busy roads. When people throw things out of car windows, including fruit slices or part of a sandwich, they attract possums.

They are active at night and sometimes drivers cannot see them. It's not uncommon to see a squashed possum venture onto the road at the wrong time. Baby possums are especially vulnerable to being hit by cars on the road.

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Can opossums control this feigning behavior?

No, possums can't control whether they play dead or not. This is known as an involuntary response. This response is triggered when a possum is cornered or stalked by a predator. Some biologists describe this behavior as going into shock or falling into a temporary coma.

How long does a possum play dead?

Opossums may play dead for a long time. Most people think possums jump up and run down the trail when a predator or threat is out of sight. Opossums, on the other hand, can be in a feigned death position for up to 4 hours! Remember, they are in shock, so their bodies must have a chance to recover.

next…

  • Are Possums Dangerous? – Commonly known as possums, they are known to be aggressive, but are they dangerous? Read on to find out!
  • Fun Possum Facts – Want to know everything there is to know about possums? Click now!
  • Possum Lifespan: How Long Do Possums Live? – How long do opossums live? Get to know the oldest possum now!

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possum playing dead
possum playing dead

© iStock.com/rexlis


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My name is Rebecca and I have been a professional freelancer for nearly ten years. I write SEO content and graphic design. When I'm not working, I'm obsessed with cats and pet mice.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are possums and possums the same animal?

No, they are not the same animal. This is one of the most common misconceptions about possums. Opossums live in North America, especially in the southern United States and Canada. Additionally, possums live in Australia, New Zealand and China.

In appearance, possums have off-white fur, while possums have golden-brown fur. The fur of the possum is hard and rough, while that of the opossum is soft. Opossums can be heavier than opossums. Adult possums can weigh up to 9 pounds, while opossums can weigh up to 15 pounds.

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One of the most important things that sets these two mammals apart is behavior. While possums can play dead, opossums don't respond to stress in this way.

Do possums hang their tails upside down when they sleep?

No, this is a misunderstanding of the animal, probably from cartoons depicting these animals hanging upside down. Indeed, they can use their tails to grab food and hold on to branches for balance. In fact, their tail can be considered an extra limb. If the critter was indeed dangling by its tail, it was only for a moment when it scrambled from branch to branch.

What is the habitat of opossums?

They live in woodlands and forests. They make their nests in underground burrows, stakes, or hollow trees. These are shy nocturnal animals that like to hide.

Are opossums rodents?

no. Although opossums look like rodents, they are not.

They are marsupials such as koala bears or kangaroos. Opossums keep their young in pouches until pups or pups are about two months old. It is the only marsupial living in North America. Other marsupials such as koalas, kangaroos and wombats live in Australia.

What is the lifespan of a possum?

You might be surprised to know that the average lifespan of a possum is only 1 to 2 years. A possum in captivity can live up to 4 years because it is not threatened by predators.

Are Possums Endangered?

No, they are not endangered. Despite having such a short lifespan, opossums rank as the species of least concern as their populations increase. But how is this possible when their lives are so short? It all has to do with their reproductive habits.

The mating season for opossums runs from January to July. A woman's gestation period is only 12 to 13 days! She can live give birth to a litter of 7 to 13 babies. Some females have as many as 20 babies, but since the mother can only provide milk for 13 babies, not all babies in a litter survive. So, it's the number of babies possums are having that keeps their numbers growing!

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