Scared to death: Opossums play possum
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
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
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
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
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 MyFWC.com/Wildlife for more information about
opossums and other Florida wildlife.