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Why Do Opossums Play Dead?

Opossum
Photo credit: Dawn Huczek via Foter.com / CC BY

What Are Opossums?

Opossums (scientific name Didelphimorphia) are small-sized marsupials that can be found in North and Central America. These tiny critters can reach 76 centimeters (29 inches) from its head to the tip of its tail and can weigh anywhere between 4 – 6 kilograms (9-13 pounds). They are omnivores, like humans and their diet mostly consist of the following:

  • nuts
  • fruits
  • leaves
  • seeds

However, as omnivores, they are also seen hunting and eating small animals like snakes, mice, worms, insects, and rats. On some occasions, they have been witnessed killing chickens.

Opossum vs. Possum

“Is it an opossum or a possum?” This is a question that people usually ask. Opossums and possums are both mammals, however, Opossums (scientific name Didelphimorphia) can be found in America while Possums (scientific name Phalangeridae) are found in Australia. They are both marsupials but they are not related in any way. Most people make the mistake of referring to opossums as “possums.”

Opossum “Playing Possum”

You may have heard of the term “playing possum” which basically means to “play dead”. As the term suggest, it came from the odd characteristic of Opossums:  They literally feign death when faced with larger animals like foxes, wolves, and even humans. Opossums will immediately—and involuntarily—lose consciousness due to shock. This temporary comatose can last from several minutes to a few hours.

When threatened, the opossum will fall down to the ground, lying on its side. Its mouth will be left hanging open with drool leaking and its tongue sticking out. Its eyes can either remain open, although unmoving, or it can also be closed. If that isn’t enough to scare off a predator, perhaps the fake smell of “decay” will. When an opossum plays dead, a foul-smelling substance will start oozing out of its anal glands. This green, pungent fluid makes its predators think that the animal has been dead for a long time. Even predators have a sensitive appetite, it seems.

While this defense mechanism may help an opossum against wild animals, it can be ineffective—even fatal—when used against humans. Some opossums have been buried alive because people thought that they were actually dead. Others have been run over by vehicles after suddenly collapsing on a busy road.

How Should I Deal With Opossums?

The best approach would be to leave the animal alone. Opossums are usually mild by nature. They rarely pose any threat against humans and they will usually leave on their own. However, if an opossum gets inside your home, you may want to call a wildlife control company. There is usually no need to harm or kill the animals, which is why humane exclusion techniques work best.

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