Why Opossums Play Dead

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The opossum is popularly known for its propensity to play dead or ‘play possum’. This behavior is a passive defensive tactic that the medium-sized marsupial has perfected to escape predation from bigger animals and humans.

The opossum feigns death when it feels threatened or is confronted by an attacker. It flops onto its side and lies on the ground with eyes closed or it may stare fixedly into space. It would even hang its tongue out and drool for effect. It goes as far as to produce a green mucus accompanied by a decaying smell from its anal glands. This stink may discourage the predator from coming any closer to the ‘dead’ opossum, who is supposedly decaying.

This ploy is aimed at putting a predator off its guard and allowing the opossum an opportunity to make good its escape. In this state, the opossum can withstand considerable abuse without flinching. And it could remain in this catatonic state for several minutes or even hours, depending on how critical the situation is.

Another defensive behavior of the opossum’s when it feels cornered, is to bluff by baring its formidable set of 50 teeth while growling in a crouched position. It intimidates many animal and human would-be predators in this manner, despite its small size.

Opossums are generally peaceful animals, rarely showing aggression and preferring to hide away rather than be involved in a fight. They move slowly on the ground and are frequent victims of car-kills. Opossums are vulnerable to predation because of their size as well as their relative slowness. The predators of the opossum include dogs, coyotes and foxes, and of course humans.

In some quarters, it is believed that playing dead is an involuntary response on the part of the opossum. And this response kicks in when the critter can simply not bear the stress of an imminent confrontation and goes into a shock-induced comatose state. In this state, it may even appear like rigor mortis has set in.

Playing dead works for the opossum in many cases, but this ploy also has its disadvantages, and they include:

- A high percentage of opossum deaths have been accrued to road kills. A critter that plays dead in the middle of the road is just as good as that – dead.
- There have been reports of people burying a supposedly dead opossum, while in fact it was just playing dead.
- A scavenging predator would not mind feeding on a dead possum and would just go ahead with it.

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