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Why do opossums play dead?

Maybe you have heard the term “Playing possum” and wondered what that is all about. At some point most of us have heard this term. It is related to a person that is “playing dead” or pretending to be asleep or immobilized and is related to a peculiar defense mechanism that the opossum employs to protect itself.

When the opossum senses that a predator is near it, the way that it defends itself is to lay down and pretend that it is dead. When it does this, it secretes a pheromone that gives the smell like the animal is dead as well. This has several effects on the animal that is chasing it.

First of all, for many animals, the thrill of the chase is as vital as the catch. When the opossum lays down and pretends to be dead that desire is lost and so the predator loses its desire to continue to act in pursuit of the animal. This is an especially effective technique against animals like dogs that see the opossum more as a playmate or toy than as some kind of snack.

For those that see the opossum as their evening meal it is the smell that is the biggest deal. When the pheromone is released, this gives the impression that the animal is a rotting corpse. Most animals do not want to eat something that is rotting because they know that the meat is most likely no longer any good and so if they eat it they will likely get sick. They are not willing to take this risk because they do not want to fall prey to the meal source that they are devouring.

With the combined effort to lay perfectly still and the smell that they secrete, this is actually a very effective tool in defending themselves against predators. Animals such as bears, lions, and wolves are known to bypass the opossum as a snack because they are worried that “dead” animal may endanger their health.

One should think of the opossum as the pacifists of the animal kingdom. Instead of fighting back to protect itself, the animal simply lays down in non-violent protest to keep itself safe and is able to successfully do so.

After waiting for a few minutes until the predator is gone, the opossum simply rolls over onto its front paws and heads on its way. The predator is gone and its biology has saved it again.

For those who are interested, many have the idea that if you are chased by a bear that you can employ this same tactic. That if you lay down the bear will simply stop chasing you and walk on. Unless you stink like you are dead this technique will not work for you. Read more: Opossum Control, How to Get Rid of Opossums, Opossum Feces.

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