|The opossum keeps predators away by curling
up and playing dead. This
pretend act is the
reason for the phrase “playing possum,” which
to fake being dead.
A variety of animals escape death by playing dead. This defense
is called death feigning. Animals that play dead may seem as if
they are offering themselves up on a platter. Yet, many predators
hunt prey in response to movement. Many animals also do not
eat prey that they have not killed. By playing dead, an animal
may make its attacker lose interest. A predator may also get careless
if its prey seems to be dead. It may relax its grip and give the
prey a chance to escape.
Many insects are known to feign death. These insect actors
include many species of beetles, grasshoppers, stick insects, and
caterpillars. Some insects curl up and remain still. Others let go
of branches and drop to the ground. Certain reptiles, such as
chameleons and many tree snakes, also drop to the ground and
Many birds also go limp when caught by a predator, and
then instantly “come back to life” at the first chance for escape.
Baby ospreys play dead in the nest when their mother gives a
Going limp and lying still works well for many animals, but
a few species deserve Academy Awards for their death-feigning
skills. Among these “best actors” are the opossum and the hognose
snake, both found in North America.
An opossum defends itself at first by growling, hissing, and
showing its teeth. If this does not frighten away the dog or other animal that is threatening it, the opossum “drops dead.” It rolls
onto its side, rounds its back, and goes limp. Its tongue lolls from
its open mouth. Its eyes close halfway—just enough to let it keep
track of its predator. An opossum will keep playing dead even if
the predator bites it. It does not revive until the predator goes
away and the coast is clear again.
Hognose snakes also use other defenses before resorting to
playing dead. A frightened hognose snake will first raise its head,
spread its neck wide, and hiss. Then, it will produce a bad smell.
If this act fails, the snake flips onto its back and lies still. like
the opossum, it opens its mouth and lets its tongue hang out. If
it is picked up and placed on its belly, it will keep flipping onto its
back and playing dead.