Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “playing possum,” and perhaps you even know that opossums “play dead” when faced with a dangerous situation. But here’s an interesting animal fact: Did you know that, when threatened, opossums actually go into a comatose state that can last for several hours?
During this time, they appear to be dead, lying motionless with their eyes closed and tongues hanging out of their mouth. They also emit a foul-smelling fluid from their anus, which can deter some predators.
They aren’t just playing around!
(Oh, and Americans often use possum and opossum interchangeably even though “possums” are the Australian version of the marsupial.)
What’s the point of possums playing dead?
One theory is that playing dead (or playing possum) is an instinctual defense mechanism. This may have evolved to protect the tiny creatures from their larger predators who don’t really want a dead meal. Not many animals (that aren’t sick) want to eat dead creatures since decomposition can be hazardous to health.
In this case, the opossum’s best chance of survival would be to make themselves unpalatable to their attacker by appearing dead. The opossums that learned to play dead survived to reproduce and teach their young the trick, while those who tried to run had less chance of survival and reproduction.
Playing dead may also allow opossums to avoid confrontation (don’t try this at home). It may be the case that by lying motionless, they convince their potential attacker they’re not a threat worth pursuing.
Death is not a choice
It’s important to note that the possums that play dead do not actively choose to do so. This is an instinctual behavior that can automatically happen when they’re overwhelmed. In these situations, the opossum’s natural response is to go into a state of shock and “play dead” as a last resort to survive.
During this state, the opossum’s heart rate and breathing slow down, and it becomes unresponsive to external stimuli. The body also produces a foul-smelling liquid that makes it unappetizing to predators. The opossum may also release a small amount of fecal matter, adding to the illusion that it is dead.
The biological advantage
There are also biological advantages to looking dead. When a possum plays dead for any significant length of time, it’s conserving energy in addition to avoiding injury. By going into a comatose state, they may be able to reduce their metabolic rate and lower their body temperature, which can help them conserve energy.
This may be particularly important for opossums that live in harsh environments where resources are limited or predators are abundant. You need every ounce of energy you can get just to stay alive.
Do all possums engage in this behavior?
Interestingly, no. Not all opossums play dead.
While it is a common defense mechanism among opossums, some individuals retain the ability to flee or fight back when threatened.
The decision of which response to use is not a conscious one but is determined by a complex set of factors, such as the type of threat, the possum’s physical condition, and the environmental conditions.
Source: “Why Do Opossums Play Dead?” — North American Nature