Opossums, when threatened, do not actually play dead. Instead, they involuntarily enter a catatonic state. Possums 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.
The marsupial will “play possum” when attacked or caught unaware.
When threatened by a predator, the possum will drop to the ground and either close its eyes or stare 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.
The marsupial employs this defense mechanism to confuse an attacker and to facilitate its escape. Many believe it’s just a good act, but according to scientists, the possum is actually in tonic immobility or thanatosis. 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 the predator swats, bites or breaks the possum’s bones.
Wild animals avoid eating dead prey to avoid 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 prone to injury. 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. And here’s a fun fact: opossum means “white dog” in the Native American Algonquian language.
By Noelle Talmon, contributor for Ripleys.com