Give Now

A Moment of Science

Why Do Opossums Hang Upside Down By Their Tails?

Are Opossums related to rats? Why do they enter a comatose like state?

Opossum playing possum

Photo: Steve Burt (Flickr)

This Opossum appears to be in a defensive state.

Have you ever seen a cartoon of a sleeping opossum hanging upside down by its tail? Well, you may be surprised to learn that ‘possums don’t actually sleep that way.

Just A Myth

Although often depicted in cartoons as hanging from their tails, the muscles in the ‘possums’ tail are not strong enough to support an adult’s weight for more than a moment.

Young ‘possums are sometimes spotted dangling temporarily by their tails, which may be where the myth got started, but even juveniles don’t hang upside down while sleeping.

Still, the ‘possum’s prehensile tail is quite handy. It can curl tightly around branches, grasp and carry objects, and help stabilize the ‘possum as it clambers around in trees and bushes.

Related To Kangaroos

Another common misconception is that ‘possums are related to rats. While they do look like rats with their pointy snouts and scaly, hairless tails, the resemblance is only superficial. ‘Possums are actually more closely related to kangaroos than to rats.

Like kangaroos, ‘possums are marsupials, and the females carry and nurse their young in pouches on their abdomens. The opossum, Didelphis virginiana, is the only marsupial native to North America.

Playing ‘Possum

These solitary, nomadic omnivores are also known for their unusual defense mechanism. When threatened, they often enter a comatose like state, becoming rigid and unresponsive.

They appear to be dead and even release a malodorous substance from their anal glands that makes them smell dead. This behavior is often called “playing ‘possum,” but the response is an involuntary physiological reaction rather than a conscious act or trick.

‘Possums may remain in this state from a few minutes to 4 hours. Often looked upon with disdain or disgust, this misunderstood marsupial is actually one of North America’s most unique and harmless mammals.

  • VickiL

    I love possums they’re my favourite animal. So misunderstood but so cute and extremely intelligent in my opinion

  • lifesshort

    They’re not misunderstood I understand that if you walk up to a possum where I live at thinking that its harmless an misunderstood you going to understand why nobody messes with possums

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from A Moment of Science:

Support for Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science

Search A Moment of Science