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Are Opossums the Only Animals That Play Dead?

Biologists refer to the process of playing dead as thanatosis. It’s a defense strategy used by a variety of animals, including frogs and opossums, which has given rise to the phrase “playing possum.” To avoid getting eaten by a predator, some animals go to great lengths to convince attackers that they’re dead. Since most hungry predators prefer live prey, they tend to move on.

The hognose snake is one creature that probably deserves an Oscar for its portrayal of death. If hissing and fake strikes don’t make the enemy move on, the hognose rolls onto its back and writhes around, emitting a foul musk scent and fecal matter. The snake even lets its tongue hang out of its mouth, often releasing small droplets of blood. And if turned over onto its stomach, it will immediately flop back to the "dead" position.

All about the hognose snake:

  • Hognose snakes come by their names honestly. These snakes have upturned snouts, resembling a hog. Their snouts help them burrow, using a sweeping side-to-side motion.

  • Belonging to the genus Heterodon, these timid snakes rarely bite. They flatten their heads like cobras, and hiss threateningly when approached. Some call them puff adders, or hissing adders.

  • Hognoses make good pets, and usually prosper in a a 20-gallon terrarium. Despite being mildly venomous, they rarely bite the hand that feeds them. A “hoggie” bite, when fingers smell like food, may lead to blisters, swelling, and other symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are opossums the only animals that play dead?

The hognose snake is known for its over-the-top efforts to "play dead" when threatened by a predator.
The hognose snake is known for its over-the-top efforts to "play dead" when threatened by a predator.

No, opossums are not the only animals that play dead. This behavior, known as thanatosis, is also exhibited by other species such as certain types of snakes, birds, and even some fish. It's a survival tactic to avoid predation by appearing unappetizing or not worth the effort to potential predators.

Why do opossums play dead?

Opossums play dead as a defense mechanism when threatened. This involuntary reaction, called "playing possum," causes them to become stiff, secrete a foul-smelling odor, and appear lifeless. This can deter predators who prefer live prey or are cautious of potentially sick animals, according to wildlife experts.

How long can an opossum play dead?

An opossum can play dead for a few minutes to several hours, depending on the perceived threat level. During this state, they reduce their heart rate and breathing, which helps to make the act more convincing. Once the danger has passed, they will gradually regain consciousness and mobility.

Can opossums control when they play dead?

Opossums do not have conscious control over playing dead; it's an involuntary response triggered by extreme stress. When an opossum is frightened and unable to flee, its body automatically initiates this defense mechanism, which is part of its natural survival strategy.

What other animals use similar defense mechanisms to opossums?

Similar to opossums, the hognose snake is known for playing dead when threatened, often flipping onto its back and opening its mouth. Certain species of frogs and birds may also exhibit thanatosis. For instance, the young Eurasian roller bird will play dead to avoid predation, a behavior observed by ornithologists.

Is playing dead an effective survival strategy for opossums?

Playing dead is indeed an effective survival strategy for opossums. Predators are often confused or uninterested in an animal that appears to be dead and may leave the opossum alone, allowing it to escape once the threat has passed. This tactic significantly increases their chances of survival in the wild.

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    • The hognose snake is known for its over-the-top efforts to "play dead" when threatened by a predator.
      The hognose snake is known for its over-the-top efforts to "play dead" when threatened by a predator.