For those of you who are acquainted with the top-notch television show "Psych," you might be familiar with the "High Top Fade Out" episode with Blackapella. If you are not familiar then you are very confused and wondering what is going on. Bear with me, bad pun intended. At one point in the episode, Joon, played by Keenan Thompson, says of a recently murdered friend, "He should’ve just played dead, man. I always said that’s what I would do if somebody was trying to kill me. Just play dead. I mean, they’d be like, 'We’re gonna kill you!' And then I’d be like - dead - and then they’d be like, 'Oh he’s dead, let’s go kill somebody else.' And then they would leave."
Despite the fact that this was a humorous scene in a humorous television show, Joon's logic is not terrible. While it may not work all that well for a human, it does work quite well for a different animal: the Virginia opossum.
Despite the fact that one typically thinks of Australia and New Guinea when one hears the word "marsupial," marsupials are actually found throughout South America, and even in North America as well! The Virginia opossum is actually the only marsupial to be found in North America north of Mexico, and is around the size of a house cat, European wildcat, Geoffroy's cat, African wildcat, marbled cat, margay, leopard cat, pampas cat, sand cat, oncilla, kodkod, black-footed cat, flat-headed cat, or the rusty-spotted cat. (And yes, I am setting up a cat feature for next week).
Originally native only to the east coast of the United States (i.e. Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Massachusetts, etc.), it was introduced to the west coast around the time of the Great Depression, likely for use as food. Below is a map of its range today.
Anyways. Have you ever heard someone use the expression "playing possum?" This expression originates from an odd but effective behavior employed by the Virginia opossum: it feigns its own death! Scientists believe that this is an involuntary reaction on the part of the opossum when it experiences fear. The fear reportedly has to be intense, however, as if the opossum is only mildly afraid, then it will react fiercely, screeching, hissing, and just generally freaking out its antagonist. Who wants to mess with an angry possum?
If the opossum becomes stressed enough, though, it will collapse into a coma-like state, sometimes for as long as four hours. While in this coma, the opossum will secrete a green fluid from its anus, a terrible smelling mixture, to make predators think that it is a gross and diseased carcass so they don't mess with it.
Of course, if an opossum becomes super stressed because it sees a car screaming down towards it on a road, I'm guessing that playing dead will only be a temporary measure. Cars don't appear to have made that big of a dent in the populations of these creatures, as they are labeled "Least Concern" by the IUCN.
One final thing about the Virginia opossum! When we were on our California/Oregon driving trip in 2011, we found a hilarious poster like the one below in a shop window! I laughed so hard!
This birthday post goes out to Chris Koreerat, happy birthday Chris! If you have a birthday coming up, just email me the date at
firstname.lastname@example.org with the date and your favorite animal, and I
will do my best to get a post in!