Virginia opossums utilize a defensive catatonic death feigning state, known as “going opossum,” in which the animal becomes motionless for minutes to hours.
Virginia opossums are most famous for entering a defensive catatonic state, commonly known as “going opossum”. This behavioral trait is one of the opossum’s most noted and described.
During this death feigning behavior, the animal becomes motionless. This trait allows the opossum to greatly decrease mortality due to predation. Feigning death has been described as the animal becoming very still or “freezing” and somewhat curling its body and falling onto its side. The tail is tucked between the legs and the mouth is drawn back and the tongue extends out of the mouth. The eyes have been noted to remain open but slightly less than when not feigning death. Reactions to tactile stimulation are reduced during this display. This behavior may last as little as a minute or it may continue up to six hours.
This behavior is relatively rare and is most frequently displayed in young opossums. Instead, it is more common for a threatened adult to bare their teeth and stand their ground, or flee. Likewise, Virginia opossums may also climb or swim to escape a perceived threat.
Sources: (Allen, Marchinton, & MacLentz, 1985; Franco, 1969; Hoffmeister, 2002; Hossler, McAninch, & Harder, 1994; Kimble, 1997; Ladine & Kissell, Jr., 1994; McManus, 1974; McRuer & Jones, 2009; Pérez-Hernandez, R., Lew, D., & Solari, 2016; Siciliano, 2013; Wilemon, 2008)
Image: Kai Schrieber