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The Debunker: Do Opossums "Play Dead"?

by Ken Jennings

If spring is, as the poets tell us, a season of rebirth, then it stands to reason that autumn is a season of death. November is when Christians observe All Souls' Day, the "Day of the Dead," celebrating the souls of the faithful departed. It's also the month that brings with it the most dead leaves, and probably the most dead turkeys as well. But a lot of what you think you know about death in the natural world is "gravely" mistaken. Ken Jennings, of Jeopardy! fame, is with us all month to debunk a lot of myths about our furry friends who encounter the undiscovered country…or at least a "farm upstate."

The Debunker: Do Opossums "Play Dead"?

In metaphorical human terms, "playing possum" means feigning injury or vulnerability for tactical purposes. It's a ploy, a scheme, a little rope-a-dope. You're lying low to put your opponent off their guard, and maybe strike back when it's least expected.

The Debunker

As a result, when we talk about opossums "playing dead," many take the word "playing" literally and assume that opossums are using some kind of instinctive—but voluntary—defense mechanism. They're "pretending" to hold still, but really they're cannily waiting for danger to pass.

The scientific term for playing possum is thanatosis, or tonic immobility. This is not an astonishing bit of marsupial method acting, but an involuntary defense mechanism in response to a threat, not so different from those goats that faint dead away when you yell at them. A Virginia possum undergoing thanatosis will stiffen up and lie motionless on its side with its eyes open and tongue lolling out. Its heart and breathing rates drop sharply and a smelly, greenish fluid gets released from its anal glands. (This last behavior is oddly glossed over when cute cartoon animals "play possum.") When the animal's stress level drops—sometimes hours later!—it'll pop out of its weird little coma.

Unless it's decided to play dead in the middle of a stressful situation like a busy highway, that is. In that case, a possum's tonic immobility reflex might land it in some hillbilly's stewpot or deep-fryer. Mmmm, roadkill.

Quick Quiz: What's the only syndicated U.S. newspaper comic whose title character was an opossum?

Ken Jennings is the author of twelve books, most recently Planet Funny and co-hosts the most important podcast in human history, Omnibus. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at or on Twitter as @KenJennings.