Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Opossums can hang by their tails.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1997]
Origins: Opossums are misunderstood creatures, often mistaken for members of the rodent family because of their long rat-like tails. Opossums are actually North America's only marsupial, a class of mammal that carries its newborn in an abdominal pouch. (The North American opossum should not be confused with the Australian possum, which is a related but distinctly different animal.) After the first
Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) is credited with bestowing the 'opossum' handle on the critter from the Algonquin Indian name 'apasum,' which means 'white face.' Smith described the animal as having "a head like a swine and a tail like a rat," a rather accurate, if unflattering, portrait.
The opossum is at home in trees. It uses its prehensile tail to help stabilize position when climbing, much the same way as a mouse will use its tail to maintain balance when it climbs a wheat stalk to nosh on the grain. Opossums do not hang by their tails, though. A baby opossum might be able to manage this feat for a second or two, but weight and body size in proportion to tail strength rule out the possibility of an adult opossum's pulling it off.
A popular list of "true facts" widely circulated on the Internet asserts the following:
When opossums are playing possum, they are not "playing." They actually pass out from sheer terror.As naturalist Warner Shedd writes, this programmed defensive response is not "playing" in the sense that it's not an intentional act of deception:
When a possum is threatened, it's likely to first show its teeth and hiss almost like an angry cat. If that fails to frighten the would-be predator, the possum may run away or climb a tree. As a last resort, however, the creature falls into a sort of catatonic state, body limp and eyes wide open. This is not a conscious act of pretending, but is really a genetically programmed reflex action. Sometimes the defensive adaptation works, and a predator loses interest in a victim that appears to be dead. Even after the threat is gone, though, the possum may remain in its comatose state for hours!However, it's not quite right to say opossums "pass out from sheer terror"; they lack the intellect necessary to register fear to that level and formulate a reaction to it. It's all instinctive response, with the chain of events predetermined by the proximity of the threat and the predator's failure to be taken in by earlier ruses in the sequence. When teeth-baring and hissing do not dissuade the attacker, and running up a tree is not a viable option, instinct kicks in, inducing
Opossums have a couple of other defensive bluffs at their disposal. They'll flash their abundant teeth
Opossums are unintelligent creatures (they eat cockroaches by choice
One curious fact about the lowly opossum: It has opposable thumbs on its rear feet, which function like hands for grasping. One of the greatest adaptations in the animal kingdom is opposable thumbs, a feature humans share only with other primates and opossums.
Barbara "the opossum: our hissin' cousin" Mikkelson
Last updated: 29 June 2007
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