Do Possums Play Dead? Death-Feigning

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One of the first things that many people think about when discussing possums is the fact that they are known for playing dead when seen by a predator. We are going to explore this interesting survival attribute and discuss some of the different ways that playing dead can actually save an opossums life.

Do Possums Play Dead?

Possums are known for playing dead when facing a dangerous predator in the wilderness. If they are afraid, they naturally and sometimes uncontrollably enter an unconscious state, also known as playing dead. This makes possums a death-feigning animal.

In addition to discussing the concept of playing dead, we’re also going to take a closer look at how effective it can be. It may be hard to imagine that pretending to be dead would stop a large predator from harming you, but opossums have one more trick up their sleeve that places the odds in their favor in certain situations. 

Why are we using the names’ possum and opossum interchangeably?

Read our article Opossum Vs Possum here.

What is a Death-Feigning Animal?

Death-feigning is an adaptive behavior that some wild animals, such as opossums use to deter predation. A study on “four free-ranging opossums” used a dog to excite a test group of opossums and found that their heart rates decreased by 12% along with a 31 percent reduction in respiratory rate.” Source.

Death-feigning is more than just an animal fainting out of fear, it is a behavior and defense mechanism that they have developed over time.

When Do Possums Play Dead?

The most common time that a possum will play dead is when they are directly facing a predator in the wilderness. The amazing thing is that possums can’t actually control when they transition into an unconscious state, similar to the action that humans call ‘playing dead’. 

This response comes from possums when they reach extreme levels of fear or anxiety, usually sparked by a predator. Sometimes it is even useful for humans to play dead, such as with certain types of bears, such as grizzly bears (but not every type.) Source.

How Long Do Possums Play Dead For?

When a possum starts playing dead, it can take a significant amount of time before they awake from this unconscious state. It can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours before opossums wake up. 

That’s the amazing thing about possums playing dead, they have absolutely no control over when they wake up and when they play dead. It’s a natural mechanism that gives possums a unique attribute to stay alive in the wilderness.

In some cases, possums can remain in this unconscious state for many hours, before eventually waking up. It just depends on specific circumstances that can’t be evaluated generally. The level of fear is not believed to contribute to the total amount of time that a possum plays dead.

For example, a slightly scared possum may enter the unconscious “playing dead” state for the same amount of time that a terrified possum would. In other words, any level of fear could trigger a possum to ‘play dead’ for an unknown amount of time. 

Do opossums play dead? – Video.

Playing Dead Vs Dead

It’s important to understand if a possum is dead or playing dead in the wilderness. If you come across an unconscious possum, the first thing that you are going to want to look for is to see if the possum is still breathing. You may see a subtle inhale and exhale from the possum’s nose or stomach. Any level of breathing would suggest that the possum is playing dead, rather than being dead.

If the possum is not breathing, then it’s almost certain that it’s dead. If you can’t tell if the possum is breathing, there are other ways to tell. A possum’s body would be warm if it was still alive. While it’s not recommended that you go out and touch an unconscious possum with your bare hands, it’s one way to tell whether a possum is alive or playing dead. 

Only someone who is trained to work with wildlife should attempt to touch an opossum. Even though may appear as a minimal threat, they can still bite and claw if they do wake up and become defensive.

Odor While Playing Dead

Earlier in this post, we discussed a “trick” that possums have as a last resort while they are playing dead. They begin to release an odor that smells absolutely awful and would most likely send a message to predators to stay away from the possum’s body while it is unconscious. 

While this defense mechanism leaves the possum completely defenseless, a rotting smell, and an unconscious body, actually seem to be a fairly effective strategy for surviving in the wilderness. Possums have a pretty high success rate for surviving when they are in this unconscious state.

Unfortunately for possums, some predators are not fooled by playing dead and some will still take the opportunity to investigate, even though a rotting smell emerges from the possum’s body. 

Related Questions

Can possums control when they play dead?

Possums cannot control when they play dead. This effect is natural and usually only happens when they experience fear. Different levels of fear can cause a possum to fall into an unconscious state, but they cannot control the amount of time they are playing dead. 

How often do possums play dead?  It is believed that there is no limit to how often a possum plays dead. If they reach a sufficient level of fear daily, then there’s no reason to believe that a possum wouldn’t play dead every single day. It all depends on how often they are fearful of their surroundings.

Chad Fox