This Week In Zoology: A Possum Plea

If you live in the United States, this plea is made of you



While possums are invasive species in other countries, like Canada and New Zealand, the North American possum means you no harm if you’re living in the US.

However, if they still scare you, this little fact might make you feel better.

Most people know that possums, well, “play possum”, meaning they “pretend” to be dead if they are frightened. However, characterizing it as playing or pretending might make it seem as though it is a conscious and devious trick. In reality possums do not have conscious control over this behavior, so it would be better characterized as going into a dead faint. This means that the possum won’t spring back to life and bite you if you approach it while it is “playing” dead. Rather, you can move it somewhere else and it will eventually wake up, a couple hours later. If it’s in your house you’ll probably want to do this sharpish, because part of their playing dead routine is leaking a nasty smell from their butt to mimic the smell of a rotting corpse. Once you see them twitch go ahead and leave them alone, and they’ll wake up and wander off.

I wouldn’t mind having a possum in my garden, if only to make a dent in the ridiculous number of slugs I’ve got taking over the place. There’s no reason to fear it just because it has an ugly little face. Still, if you’re not convinced of it’s trustworthiness given it’s freaky grin, always remember that it is the cousin of these furry little cutie pies

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That second one is actually called the “little wooly mouse opossum”. That’s just too cute.




  1. kestrel says

    Awwwwww…. So cute!

    I actually kept a young possum for a few weeks. She “fell into a dead faint” (I like that phrase) out of a tree, and fearing for her safety as such a young animal (I know, you shouldn’t do that, I was young and idealistic), I took her home and quietly observed her behavior. I did not attempt to turn her into a pet, mind you. Absolutely no handling, cuddling or petting, plus I made sure not to speak around her. When she was a little older and bigger I released her back into the same forest where I found her.

    I thought she had a very charming “just climbed out of the dishwasher” look and found her very interesting and a nice subject for artwork. They don’t seem like the smartest animals in the world; but then you don’t really need to be, and she was very well adapted to climbing trees and looking for food. A nice animal in my book!

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    As a rural US southeasterner, I have chased, cornered, and otherwise confronted several opossums (I wanna call ’em opossa) over the years, and never yet seen one “play possum” – they typically turn and bare those long, needle-like teeth, with every indication of planning to go down fighting hard.

    Even more to my surprise, I have seen baby raccoons curl up and play dead when I went after them.

    I guess they haven’t read their respective manuals.

    • Tsu Dho Nimh says

      They first try the open mouth fang display and a really nice hiss. Then they play dead … usually.

      I had one that lived under my front porch, and the cats found it fascinating.

  3. Great American Satan says

    It’s my understanding they actually are an invasive species in the west coast of the USA as well, originating in the east coast/southeast and spreading with urbanization. Although IMHO not all invasives are equal, it’s hard to imagine them harming the ecosystem here at all. Anyone know anything about that?

  4. martha says

    How are possums an invasive species in Canada, seeing that it’s contiguous with the US, not a separate ecosystem? Also, about those possums that are an invasive species in New Zealand, they are nothing at all like the American possum. I remember seeing them on my honeymoon in NZ & they are the cutest invasive species ever, something like a cross between a squirrel and a cat, with silky fur. I think I heard that they came from Australia and were released into NZ on purpose once upon a time by people hoping to start a trapping and fur industry, but now of course they are pests that prey on native species.
    There are plenty of possums here in Wisconsin, but still plenty of ticks and slugs. I’ve never seen a possum play dead either and they seem much more likely to become accidental roadkill or to be outcompeted by raccoons than to be pestered by people who don’t like or understand them.

  5. kestrel says

    I’d been told that in the US there are three species that are actually expanding their range due to humans (it usually works the other way around) and that those three species were opossums, armadillos and coyotes. I believe there are other animals that have been left off the list though, like the house mouse, the crayfish and the raccoon.

    I guess they could be considered invasive by expanding their range like that. In some cases people actually deliberately introduced animals into new territory for some purpose (I am thinking specifically of raccoons being brought in by people who had hounds) and the animal then established itself very nicely, sometimes to the detriment of native species. That is sure the case with the crayfish being brought in for fishing bait, and then released into the water after the fishing expedition. This practice has devastated native fish habitat.

  6. lorn says

    I have read reports on opossums that say:

    The state they go into when fainting blocks pain, and/or they can willfully block pain. The reported reason is that while playing dead a predator might grab a limb and chew on it or break it, and the possum doesn’t react. But still walks away after waking up.

    Possums are nearly immune to bites from poisonous snakes. Report was that research into this could lead to a all-in-one anti-venom.

    That possums have remarkable healing power and resistance to many infections.

    How many of those, if any, are even partially true, I don’t know.

  7. says

    My farm is home to several possums. They are as welcome as all other critters.

    I had a funny possum thing happen once when I lived in Baltimore. I had this big old alley cat named mOses who lived under my porch, and one night when I went down to wrangle some trash, mOses was atop the can so I started rubbing him behind the ears. And he didn’t react the way he usually did, so I worried and turned the light on and there was a very perplexed possum looking at me as if asking “what are you doing to my ear?” We both left in opposite directions.

  8. says

    Like spiders, too many people are scared of the animal instead of realizing their existence benefits humans. Chasing away or killing the beneficial animal makes things worse.

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