Playing Possum

Photo credit: Jade Jarvis and Alyssa Valentyn.

When I was about age 10, Mrs. Garvey assigned an essay to read on opossums. Never mind that we lived 3,000 miles from the nearest actual opossum; I was 10 and one did not question the logic of the teacher’s assignments. I was fascinated and a little incredulous to learn that when alarmed, opossums would play dead and sit there like a lump.

Obviously this defense, if one could even call it that, is entirely useless against vehicles traveling at far greater than opossum speed. Even the most casual observer of roadkill would agree that opossums are no match for pickup trucks and SUVs. But to my 10-year-old self, it seemed most improbable that playing dead could be an effective form of defense against any predator. It seemed to me that a plump and juicy four legged animal could play as dead as possible and still end up that way for real – on the dinner menu of some hungry fox or owl. I wondered if this story was just that: something to assign to 10-year-olds to keep them from playing in traffic.

I was reminded of this story this evening when paging through trail camera photographs taken by my Saint Michael’s College students as part of a research project. Camera 6 had been unusually busy, capturing photographs of coyotes, raccoons, and yes, opossums. It was very likely the same opossum running the length of a log on several nights.

When clicking through infrared-flashed night-time photographs rapidly, it looks like an old silent movie. Frames follow frames and it’s tempting to think that the camera found grand central station for commuting mammals instead of a quiet patch of forest in Vermont. In reality, most animal visits were separated by hours or even days and they were in little real danger of bumping into each other.

Except for the sequence on November 23 of this year, when two animals got close indeed. The first entered the bottom of the frame as a blur of fur that in the second frame flopped into a nondescript lump . . . directly at the feet of a large coyote. The coyote sniffed the lump, and nudged it enough to move it before stepping over it. After one more investigative sniff, the large canid left the scene and the “lump” remained static.

A full four minutes passed without any movement to trigger the trail camera. Then the lump was suddenly animated and walked away hauling its little rat-like opossum tail behind it. Although I had long since learned what 10-year-old Declan could not believe, that opossums do in fact “play possum,” it was pretty amazing to see it play out on a trail camera.

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