Ask a Ranger: Why do animals ‘play possum?'

Mar. 01, 2014 @ 08:06 PM

“Playin’ possum” is an adaptation animals display to evade and escape danger.

One minute, the opossum is waddling along, the next it sees you and — boom — it falls over lying their seemingly lifeless.

“I scared it to death,” you think, but the reality of it is the opossum is feigning death in order to escape danger, which it perceives you to be.

Many animals have developed different adaptations in order to evade or escape predation.

The hognose snake is another example of an animal native to the state that feigns death as a last resort when threatened. When threatened, the hognose snake will puff up and hiss, trying to appear larger and aggressive.

When this tactic does not work, the hognose snake will roll over, excrete a foul smelling odor, and leave its mouth agape. This combination works because many predators do not eat carrion.

Another behavior an animal may exhibit is to feign an injury in order to draw the predators attention away from their young.

This is the case with the killdeer, a small ground-nesting bird. The killdeer will feign an injured wing and make distress calls in attempt to lure the potential threat away from its nearby nest.

Many moths and butterflies have wing markings that look like eyes in attempts to either startle the predator or misguide the predator as to which end to attack, therefore giving the moth or butterfly a chance to escape.

Other animals go one step further and are willing to lose a piece of themselves in order to survive. The five-lined skink, a small reptile, has a tail that is easily detached and continues to twitch if the skink is threatened.

This allows the skink to escape as the predator is drawn to the still moving tail.

Lastly, one animal has the advantage of chemical warfare in its arsenal as a means to escape predation.

A skunk, normally a very docile creature, will arch, puff out its fur and stomp in attempts to scare of a threat. If these tactics do not work, the skunk will twist its posterior towards the threat and can spray a terribly pungent, gag-inducing mist of oily liquid from its anal duct.

The adaptations for all of these animals are unique, amazing, and have evolved to increase the probability of survival. If you encounter these animals and they display these behaviors, you now know they are feeling threatened and it is best to back off and redirect your path.

Upcoming Programs
March 4 — Leslie Parham Library, Reading with a Ranger (4 p.m.)
March 12 — Oxford’s Thorton Library, Reading with a Ranger (10:30 a.m.)

Send your questions to park ranger Jessica Williams at jessica.b.williams@ncparks.gov.