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Scared to death: Opossums play possum

Backyard Safari

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Media contact: Jessica Basham

The Virginia opossum has gnarly, sharp teeth and looks like something out of a scary movie rather than a real-life creature. However, the opossum, most known for playing dead, is not a dangerous animal.

The name "opossum" comes from the Algonquian language word "aposoum" meaning "white beast." Although opossums are not white, their face is.

The term "playing possum" means to remain quiet and still - opossums fall over and appear to be dead. This action is involuntary and usually happens if the animal is frightened. When an opossum is scared, its body shuts down and the animal goes stiff, with its teeth bared, and saliva drips from its open mouth. In addition, it gives off a bad smell! It may be minutes or hours before the opossum returns to its activities.

If you see one, do not assume it is dead. Leave the yard and make sure your pets are inside so it can revive and wander off.

When an opossum feels threatened, it may hiss, growl or make clicking sounds to scare away predators. Baby opossums sound as if they are sneezing when they feel threatened. Adult males also make a smacking noise with their mouth when they are looking for a mate.

They have other defenses. Opossums are immune to many poisons from other animals, such as rattlesnakes. They also drool, making would-be predators avoid them, as drooling is generally a sign of sickness.  However, drooling with saliva spreading is normal for opossums.  It helps them stay cool.

Opossums are the only marsupials in North America. They carry their young in a pouch, just like a kangaroo. These wiry-haired animals can reach the size of a house cat. Because they are omnivorous - eat many things - they can live in different habitats. They like to eat insects, frogs, small mammals, fruits, trash and pet food left outside. They are also scavengers and eat animals hit by cars. This practice can subject them to the same fate.

Contrary to popular belief, opossums do not hang upside down from their tails. However, they do use their tail as a fifth leg to help support their weight while climbing trees and limbs. They may also use their tail to carry branches or leaves for bedding. Opossums do not dig burrows but live in hollowed-out stumps or in homes of other animals, such as gopher tortoise burrows.

Opossums are nocturnal - they usually come out at night - so they are difficult to find, but not impossible. They are common in all areas of the state, including suburban neighborhoods. Get Outdoors Florida! and look for them at dawn or dusk. The best way to know if an opossum has been in your yard is to look for tracks. Find a sandy area and look for footprints in the sand. The front and back feet of an opossum are very close together, and a large "thumb" extends to the side. While searching for opossum tracks, you may find other animal prints. Keep a list or take a photo to "track" your tracks.

Visit for more information about opossums and other Florida wildlife.   

FWC Facts:
The Florida Bird Conservation Initiative is a voluntary, public-private partnership that seeks to promote the sustainability of native Florida birds and their habitats.

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