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Playing Possum

Playing dead doesn't seem like much of a strategy, but it works for the opossum, commonly known as the possum.

A possum sits perched in a tree and eats a cracker.

Photo: Gundy (Flickr)

Much like the kangaroo, possums can carry their young in a pouch.

The possum is a rather unglamorous creature. It has big, black eyes, a pale pointy face, and a hairless tail, like a rat’s. Possums aren’t finicky about their food, either: they eat fruits, vegetables, insects, reptiles, and even roadkill.

They do have a couple of unique habits, though: as North America’s only marsupial, they can carry their young in a pouch, like a kangaroo, and they can play dead.

“Playing Dead”

Possums are famous for “playing dead” when threatened, but this isn’t quite accurate. They are not “playing” dead at all: the possum goes into shock when particularly stressed.

While not dead, the possum can be found lying on its side with its legs extended and is, in fact, limp and unconscious during this time, like a person who has fainted.

Vulnerabilities

While playing dead discourages predators from chasing the possum, it also makes them vulnerable. When drivers see the limp possum in the road, they don’t bother to swerve, since they assume it’s already dead.

There are also accounts of people shooting the comatose possum in order to “put it out of its misery.” There is such a thing as overplaying a part.

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  • lilyandtracy

    More of a question. I have a small baby possum who was injured and now only has one eye. She is very tame and loving. The dogs managed to get her two days ago and she “played possum”. whilst she seems fine now, she is sleeping much more than usual, eating much less, though this morning she did have a big drink of water and ate a little baby food. I am wondering if you know what happens to a possum when they do this, is it like hibernation? Do they take time to wake and return to their normal selves? She moved out of danger as soon as the dogs left the room but has slept SO much since. I can find no answers to this question and would love to know what is actually going on for her??

  • Robert N Laura Harris

    This is not accurate, i live in north america and own a chicken coup, we frequently turn up opossums in, Often the opossum will see me enter the building, turn on the lights and then they fall on their side and curl up with their eyes open. but i know for a fact they are still conscious. I know this because when they are in this state with eyes wide open and if you threaten to poke it in the eye it will flinch. You can also use their tail as a handle and throw them out of the coop.

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