Opossums have some well-known unusual behaviors, but spending long periods hanging by their tails isn't something they really do. It's a common misconception, and it probably started because of how these creatures are sometimes portrayed in cartoons.
Opossums have long, hairless tails that look like rat tails. However, their tails aren't strong enough to support their weight while hanging from them. Young opossums are sometimes seen hanging by their tails, but they can’t do it for more than a moment or two. They can’t hang any longer than that because they do not have the muscle structure needed to hold the position. The myth of them sleeping while hanging upside down by their tails just isn't true.
Still, though, their tails are impressive. They can use them much like a fifth limb to help them climb trees and other structures. They can grasp things with their tails, and they use them to help balance themselves. Although they can wrap their tails around branches and tree limbs, they aren't able to support their weight by hanging from them.
While their tails might not live up to the hype, another unusual behavior opossums engage in is absolutely true. They do play dead, a behavior that has been coined "playing possum."
Playing dead is a defense mechanism for opossums. If an opossum is threatened by a potential predator such as a fox or dog, they'll sometimes flop onto the ground either with their eyes closed or staring off into the distance, looking as though they are dead.
Playing dead isn't just an act. When startled or threatened by predators, the opossums sometimes enter into this catatonic state in which they appear dead. It can last a minute or two or as long as six hours.
The playing dead act is what opossums are most well-known for, but it isn't very common practice. It's actually quite rare and usually done by younger animals. More often, opossums defend themselves by running away from predators.
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