Faking death is a common act in nature, but one that few can observe. However, the video of a viral opossum, or tlacuache as it is known in Mexico, showed viewers how the most popular defense mechanism in the animal world works: thanatosis.
Tlacuaches are very common animals in Mexico, and one specimen of this species was the protagonist of an extraordinary moment. A man came very close to a tlacuache in the middle of the street, and as he approached it, he recognized a strange and curious behavior.
Faced with a possible threat, the opossum plays dead. The video shows how the animal leaves its snout ajar, extends its legs, and remains motionless. Until the man approaches to touch its back, then he realizes that the animal is alive and that it simply resorted to thanatosis.
Thanatosis: the art of playing dead
At first glance, it would appear that the tlacuache is lifeless, but upon closer inspection, it can be seen that it uses the art of playing dead. In nature, this mechanism is known as thanatosis.
Several species make use of thanatosis as an instinctive defense mechanism. In situations of danger or the face of predators, animals tend to create scenes that make them look as if they were lifeless.
For example, the opossum stands still, opens its mouth slightly, and secretes a stinky liquid that predators can recognize as a smell of decay. This odor helps predators stay away and prefer not to eat it.
Other species that resort to thanatosis
There is also the collared snake, a small snake that resorts to playing death in the face of any danger. However, this species takes the mechanism very seriously, as it reproduces a whole dramatic scene with a head pose, with its tongue out and expelling blood from its nose.
But that’s not all, the Philodromus disparar spider uses thanatosis to lure its prey. With an acting work worthy of an Oscar, this spider tricks its victims into approaching a supposed corpse.
Thanks to this tlacuache we now know that not all animals will run in terror to flee in the face of danger. There are species that nature and evolution have endowed with particular mechanisms, even if they do not always fool everyone.
Text and photos courtesy of Ecoosfera
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards