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Playing Possum

Playing Possum

04.14.2008 - Everyone has heard about "playing possum". It's a defense mechanism of the North American Opossum. If it's attacked by a predator, sometimes it completely passes out, and appears dead. It is the instinct of many predatory animals to shake and kill a critter that is moving or fighting back, but they often leave dead animals alone. Thus, if attacked, by feigning death, the opossum doesn't receive any further attack. With luck, the attacking animal loses interest and leaves. The opossum wakes up after 15 minutes or so, and walks away.

As far as I know, this defensive tactic is not necessarily the cunning move that people make it out to be. It's not as if the opossum strategically knows that it should "play dead" and is conscious during the whole ordeal, sneaking a grin and a peek out of the corner of the eye when the attacker isn't looking. In reality, it's a reflexive action more akin to passing out in sheer terror.  The whole body goes limp, the tongue hangs out, the eyes roll back, the heart rate slows, breathing is very shallow, the whole bit.  After perhaps 15 minutes with no further activity, the animal's body knows that the coast is likely clear, so it wakes up and walks away.

I received the below email and photo from a woman who watched the whole thing happen:

Hello! I came across your site while looking for images on google and saw that you said that an opossum playing dead is probably rare so I wanted to share this story with you.

My Great Dane caught and carried an opossum to our backdoor. The possum was limp and lifeless. After my dog dropped it and lost interest in the "dead" possum, I watch from my backdoor and noticed that it started breathing again.... I was pretty intrigued! I wasn't sure if it was slowly dying or if I was actually witnessing a possum playing dead! When my dog came around again and grabbed the possum by the HEAD (!!) and dragged it down the hill a little more, the possum laid lifeless still. I FINALLY got my dog inside, locked him in the garage and went back to the backdoor to watch this possum. It was breathing again. After 15 minutes or so, it blinked, then wiggled its hands, it slooooooowly raised its head and looked around, then rolled over on its legs and walked away like nothing had ever happened. Playing dead saved this opossums life and I can't believe it didn't harm my dog in any way. I've included pictures of the whole ordeal in this email. It's pretty neat. You mentioned on your site that playing possum was probably rare, I agree. So to see it in person was pretty amazing! Just wanted to share my story. :)

Thanks for your time,

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The opossum, (Didelphis virginiana) is a nocturnal animal that lives in North America. It is a marsupial, which means that the females give birth to tiny young, who grow in a pouch. These young eventually cling to the mother's back and drop off when they are large enough. Opossums are unique for many reasons. They have opposable thumbs, prehensile tails, 50 teeth, and several other unusual features. They are omnivores who eat almost anything, they have excellent immune systems, and they rarely live more than 2-3 years in the wild. They are most commonly considered a nuisance species when they live in an attic or other structure, such as under a shed, or steal pet food or threaten animals.

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