Opossums don’t actually play dead when they’re threatened. Instead, they involuntarily enter a catatonic state. Possums, as they are commonly called, are more likely to run the other way, bare their teeth and growl in dangerous situations. While their bravado is admirable, it’s not very difficult for most predators to overpower them.
When you see the marsupial “playing possum” it’s because it’s been attacked or caught unaware. If it feels threatened by a dog, fox, owl or other animal, it drops to the ground and either closes its eyes or stares off into space. Its body goes limp, its breathing appears to stop, it discharges its bowels, its tongue sticks out, and it drools. And if you poke it, the possum will not respond. By all indications, it appears to be dead.
This defense mechanism is intended to confuse its attacker and allow the possum to escape. Many people believe it’s a good act, but according to scientists the possum is actually in tonic immobility or thanatosis, and its body enters a catatonic state in response to fear. “Playing possum” isn’t an act; it’s an involuntary reaction to a threat.
The animal doesn’t feel any pain and has no reflexes when this occurs. It even stops blinking its eyes. A possum won’t respond no matter what a predator does, even if swats, bites or breaks the possum’s bones.
Many wild animals are turned off by dead prey, an evolutionary tactic that likely keeps carnivores from consuming diseased food. Most predators will give up on prey that plays possum.
It can take the marsupial anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to become mobile again. While they can survive these types of encounters, they can still be injured. Scientists have found many possums in the wild wandering around with healed wounds and fractures, likely from being attacked.
In addition to seemingly feigning death, possums have other remarkable traits. They have prehensile tails to climb tree branches, and they’re immune to pit viper venom. Females give birth to up to 18 babies at once just 12 to 14 days after conception.
They’re also very adaptable. The Virginia possum, for example, has expanded its territory to the north, which has a much colder climate. In some northern states, the animals survive frostbite on their tails and ears when they appear in the spring. They’re battered but resilient. And here’s a fun fact: opossum means “white dog” in the Native American Algonquian language.
By Noelle Talmon, contributor for Ripleys.com