Playing Possum

Playing Possum


04.14.2008 - Everyone has heard about "playing possum". It's a defense mechanism of the North American Opossum. If it's attacked by a predator, sometimes it completely passes out, and appears dead. It is the instinct of many predatory animals to shake and kill a critter that is moving or fighting back, but they often leave dead animals alone. Thus, if attacked, by feigning death, the opossum doesn't receive any further attack. With luck, the attacking animal loses interest and leaves. The opossum wakes up after 15 minutes or so, and walks away.

As far as I know, this defensive tactic is not necessarily the cunning move that people make it out to be. It's not as if the opossum strategically knows that it should "play dead" and is conscious during the whole ordeal, sneaking a grin and a peek out of the corner of the eye when the attacker isn't looking. In reality, it's a reflexive action more akin to passing out in sheer terror.  The whole body goes limp, the tongue hangs out, the eyes roll back, the heart rate slows, breathing is very shallow, the whole bit.  After perhaps 15 minutes with no further activity, the animal's body knows that the coast is likely clear, so it wakes up and walks away.

I received the below email and photo from a woman who watched the whole thing happen:

Hello! I came across your site while looking for images on google and saw that you said that an opossum playing dead is probably rare so I wanted to share this story with you.

My Great Dane caught and carried an opossum to our backdoor. The possum was limp and lifeless. After my dog dropped it and lost interest in the "dead" possum, I watch from my backdoor and noticed that it started breathing again.... I was pretty intrigued! I wasn't sure if it was slowly dying or if I was actually witnessing a possum playing dead! When my dog came around again and grabbed the possum by the HEAD (!!) and dragged it down the hill a little more, the possum laid lifeless still. I FINALLY got my dog inside, locked him in the garage and went back to the backdoor to watch this possum. It was breathing again. After 15 minutes or so, it blinked, then wiggled its hands, it slooooooowly raised its head and looked around, then rolled over on its legs and walked away like nothing had ever happened. Playing dead saved this opossums life and I can't believe it didn't harm my dog in any way. I've included pictures of the whole ordeal in this email. It's pretty neat. You mentioned on your site that playing possum was probably rare, I agree. So to see it in person was pretty amazing! Just wanted to share my story. :)

Thanks for your time,

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The opossum, (Didelphis virginiana) is a nocturnal animal that lives in North America. It is a marsupial, which means that the females give birth to tiny young, who grow in a pouch. These young eventually cling to the mother's back and drop off when they are large enough. Opossums are unique for many reasons. They have opposable thumbs, prehensile tails, 50 teeth, and several other unusual features. They are omnivores who eat almost anything, they have excellent immune systems, and they rarely live more than 2-3 years in the wild. They are most commonly considered a nuisance species when they live in an attic or other structure, such as under a shed, or steal pet food or threaten animals.

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Opossums are the only marsupials in North America, and this fact makes them distinct and unique. They also have particular adaptations like using their tails to hold tightly to objects and playing dead to keep predators away. Many people often ask if possums really faint or if they are just pretending.


An opossum is a grey animal that is roughly the size of a cat; it has a long tail, snout, long hairs and a pink-tipped nose.

Opossums are omnivores and can eat vegetables, nuts, eggs, and seeds as well as flesh and smaller mammals.

Possums are animals that avoid fights at all costs. They are not very fast animals, and this makes them very easy prey to almost all animals, including foxes, coyotes, and dogs. Opossums will growl, hiss, and in worst-case scenarios, they might even bite when they feel confronted and backed into a corner. They also pretend to be dead, and people often refer to this act as "playing possum."


When a predator approaches a possum, it freezes and falls on the ground as if it is dead. The fact is, the opossum is not really pretending, but truly faints. Due to its slow and peaceful nature, the opossum does not have many defense mechanisms against predators, and its greatest asset may be a very sensitive brain.

Once it feels attacked or under pressure, the opossum's brain snaps off, and every characteristic of a living thing ceases. The opossum's breath becomes imperceptible, and a gland at the anal region produces a smelly, green pigment that makes its death very convincing. It also sticks out its tongue and drools. It is, in fact, so compelling that you will not know if a possum is dead or is just playing dead until you wait for several hours. You can even poke it or move the possum without getting any signs of life. This small marsupial puts on the greatest of acts.

Most predators will not know what to do with an opossum that is playing dead and will walk away. The opossum will not move or even blink when the predators swat at it, bite or drag it, and this convinces the predators that they are dead. The possums can play dead from several minutes to a few hours and will get up once they sense that there is no longer danger.

Playing possum is a suitable defense mechanism. However, it has some risks that include:

Possums can play dead anywhere, even on busy roads. This trait does not help them against car accidents as most drivers do not see them or believe that they are already dead. And so, it is very easy for cars to run them over.

Most predators may not eat a dead opossum but will play with them. Sometimes, opossums wake up with injuries, fractures, and broken jaws.

In cold areas, they may experience frostbite on their ears and tails. The opossum is an intriguing animal, and the best way to be sure that it is actually dead is for you to leave it alone for several hours, most times, it will wake up and walk away.

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