Opossums are slow-moving animals that are vulnerable to predators, such as dogs, coyotes, and foxes. They generally try to avoid confrontations. An opossum that feels threatened may hiss and show its teeth to scare off a potential predator, but it may also “play dead,” or “play possum.”
If an opossum is very afraid when it is out in the daylight and cannot escape, or if it is being attacked, it can go into shock and appear dead. The shock causes the opossum to go into a comatose state in which it lies on its side, its body is limp, its front feet are balled up, and drool comes out of its mouth. The lips are drawn back and teeth are bared, and the eyes close or half close. It may appear that rigor mortis has set in.
An opossum can also excrete a green mucus form its anal gland with a smell that makes other animals think the body is decaying. This discourages other animals from feeding on the opossum while it is “playing dead.” The opossum can stay in this state anywhere from 40 minutes to four hours. Baby opossums often do not play dead when threatened.
When an opossum is in that state, no amount of prodding will elicit a response. Even though it seems to be in a comatose state, the opossum’s metabolic processes are as high as they are when it is fully alert.
When the opossum believes the danger has passed, it will wiggle its ears to pick up sounds. If the predator is no longer there, the opossum will lift its head and look around. If the threat is still present, the opossum will play dead again.