The opossum is one of the most frequently encountered U.S. wildlife species, showing up in woods and swamps, plains and marshes, cities and suburbs—and in backyard gardens.
It may look as big as a housecat, but don’t quite look the part. Opossums look a whole lot more like rats, even though they’re on the other side of the mammal family tree as Marsupial
Opossums have a primitive brain, about one-fifth the size of a raccoon’s, as is typical for marsupials.
Adult opossums are solitary and nocturnal (active at night), preferring to live in pre-existing burrows and cavities rather than creating their own. They seek refuge underground, in trees, or in between.
When frightened or injured, opossums enter a state of torpor, lying as still as death—the well-known act of “playing ‘possum,” the one gimmick that everyone knows about them. “Playing possum”, is an involuntary physiological response they’ve evolved to get predators to leave them alone.
The American Museum of Natural History even tweeted about the animal and even declared that their trick was nominated for an Oscar! “Few compare to this marsupial when it comes to ‘playing dead, when under threat, it’ll fall on its side, curl its body, & may supplement the act with open-mouth drooling & an excretion of feces in hopes of deterring hungry predators,” the museum wrote.
And the award goes to…the opossum! Few compare to this marsupial when it comes to “playing dead.” When under threat, it’ll fall on its side, curl its body, & may supplement the act with open-mouth drooling & an excretion of feces in hopes of deterring hungry predators. #Oscars pic.twitter.com/Q7IvI0ADnq
— American Museum of Natural History (@AMNH) February 25, 2019
If you’re a hungry predator, like a wolf or a hawk, and have one of these hissy, scavenging marsupials cornered, then they play dead.
Opossums can avoid being eaten by predators by pretending to be dead. But they are not exactly playing. They have no control over this response, which could be said to paralyze them with fear. Their anal glands release a foul-smelling fluid to ward off potential predators, and their lips pull back to reveal their teeth in a sardonic grin.
A catatonic opossum will awaken in one to four hours if not hurt. Even older animals can’t always be counted on to collapse in a confrontation; they may growl, bite, or, most commonly, flee—at a top speed of perhaps 7 miles per hour. Younger opossums are less likely than mature ones to play ‘possum. They can outrun almost any predator, which may be why playing ‘possum evolved as a form of defense.
But beneath that rat-like exterior, hissing, and playing dead that they’re so known for, Opossums are often accused, of seeing one in your backyard freaks out a lot of people who aren’t used to the sight of these funny, misunderstood marsupials. They are often seen as a pest and accused of everything from knocking over garbage cans to killing chickens, these quiet marsupials are rarely a threat and are easily sent on their way.
The opossum should not be feared, they’re less dangerous than a loose dog, in most cases. They’re far more afraid of humans – thus the playing dead part of their defensive strategy.
If there is an opossum in the backyard, don’t worry. They aren’t a threat, and more than likely they will be moving on in a short while. But far from being a nuisance, opossums can be beneficial for your garden; they play some important roles in controlling garden pests and even in limiting ticks.
As omnivores, opossums will police your garden, feeding on insect pests, garden slugs, rodents, toads, snakes and even dead animals that might otherwise rot in place. They may pose an occasional threat to garden fruits and vegetables, but they tend to prefer plant matter that is starting to rot, so chances are they will help clean up, rather than clean out, your garden.
So you better think twice before you try to scare them away, next time when you see them wandering around your yard, they may look ugly but they can do a lot for you and your property.