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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bob-tailed possum

Ever surprised an opossum?

If so, you watched it trundle away at a leisurely pace.

When a possum beats a hasty retreat it is not a feat of swiftness, because Br'er Possum is neither built nor wired for speed.

The books that cite 7 kilometers per hour as the opossum's max don't mention that Possum probably never has to go all-out for a mile.

If overtaken by a pursuer Possum plays possum.  

Collapsing, drooling profusely, evacuating bladder, colon and anal gland is no small feat of physiological multi-tasking.  

The hungry predator doesn't have to fight for dinner, because dinner appears to be close to death.

Lying there with that silly grin, Possum blithely faces death with the far-off stare of a meditating yogi; indeed its respiration and heart rate decrease.

But the summation of the stimuli emanating from this hot heap of flesh is enough to make at least some predators lose their appetite.

Playing possum however is an anti-predator ploy that develops with time.

It is not in the weanling possum's bag of tricks, at least not in its full-blown manifestation.

That may explain why the little guy in the picture is missing its tail.

Whatever happened, it was lucky to get away.


Gabrielson, G. W. and E. N. Smith.  1985. Physiological responses associated with feigned death in the American opossum. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 123(4):393–398.  


biobabbler said...

poor baby! Interesting description of what possums do to discourage death by fangs. Loved the "hot heaps of flesh." Great.

Years ago a friend dropped me off late at night @ my house in San Diego, then returning to his car, in the dark & through a fog of fatigue, he bent down to pet what he thought was a kitty and it lifted its head to him and HISSED and displayed 10,000 tiny, razor sharp teeth.

Yup. Possum. Scared the CRAP out of my friend and was a truly bizarre experience when super sleepy then almost get hand eaten by kitty-to-possum shape-shifter. =)

Camera Trap Codger said...

It's believable and it can happen, BB. Of course, you've seen the possum poster reporting a lost cat found by a caring citizen. A friend sent me that one with the comment, "This is why we more trained mammalogists."

BLD in MT said...

How fascinating! I just had to google for the found cat ad....and there was more than one!

Yesterday I was picking cherries and a fellow walked by and asked "What are those? Are those cherries?" I suppose it isn't surprising that folks don't recognize possums if they don't recognize cherries.