Playing Possum

Animals, even plants, lie to each other all the time, and we could restrict the research to them, putting off the real truth about ourselves for the several centuries we need to catch our breath. What is it that enables certain flowers to resemble nubile insects, or opossums to play dead, or female fireflies to change the code of their flashes in order to attract, and then eat, males of a different species?
— Lewis Thomas


Ron yelled into the house, “Debbie! Come quickly and bring your camera.” When I arrived at the corner of our fenced property, I asked, “What am I looking for?” Jose, our yard worker said it was a giant rat called El Zorro.

“Oh, there it is,” I pointed. It looked kind of like a tiny kangaroo frantically trying to find a hole in our fence so it could make a quick escape from our prying eyes.

It was a cute intruder with big brown eyes and tiny hands that could grasp the chicken wire fence to inspect for holes.  It had a long tail, similar to a giant rat, and two large white spots above its eyes. But, I had no idea what it was.
After some research, I concluded that it was a Brown Four-eyed Opossum. Now it made sense why it looked like a tiny kangaroo because it is a pouchless  marsupial. Jose said they used to be very common on Ometepe, but now they are endangered.

He either told me that they taste like chicken, or they eat chickens. However, I suspect both are true. Farmers don’t mess with chicken predators here! It is chicken nation and all predators are thrown into the cooking pot.


Although they are mainly nocturnal, it was early morning, and this little guy or gal must have spent the night munching on our bananas. Back and forth…searching…testing our fence line with its cool humanlike hand…sniffing…and inspecting anything that resembled an escape hole in the corner of our property…

The quote above made me think about animal lies, particularly deceptions of opossums. I’m sure you’ve heard of the phrase “play possum”. This expression alludes to the fact that the opossum falls into an apparent coma when caught, giving the appearance of death. The Brown Four-eyed Possum doesn’t play dead when threatened. Instead it uses its white eye spots to give the impression that it has four threatening looking eyes. Since they hunt at night, the white eye spots are visible to their predators.

Ron laid a pole over the fence for an escape path.  Before climbing to the top of the pole and jumping to the other side of the fence, it turned around and bared its teeth, almost to say, “I am stronger and more agile than you. Don’t mess with me.”


Animal lies and deceptions fascinate me. Deception using aggressive mimicry like this opossum make me question if this is learned behavior or instinctual. And if animals learn sneaky lies to improve their chances of survival, do humans do the same?

But, those are thoughts for another day. I’ll restrict the research to them, postponing the real truth about ourselves for now. Instead, I think I’ll spend more time observing our new friend, the four-eyed opossum.

I wonder how he will react if I play possum? 

10 thoughts on “Playing Possum

  1. long ago a water possum nested in between the walls of my studio in costa rica… i could hear it during the night, and i pried several sections of canya brava away from the wall to try to see what was making the noise.. when my flashlight illuminated the ‘creature’ all i saw was its great big pink mouth – i first thought it was a huge snake!

    i love the photos and your story! how can one not love that unique creature that dropped in to say hi?!!

  2. I imagine humans do use sneaky lies, just like animals, to improve their chances of survival. My mind is always all over the place though thinking up things most people never even dwell on. Life is funny, isn’t it? There’s probably not very much that separates humans from other animals here on earth. Yes, humans are smart, but animals are way smarter than we give them credit for.

    • Sunni, exactly how I feel! My mind has been all over deceptions, too! I was going to angle my post to discuss human lies and deceptions, but I just have too many questions about it and no answers. Maybe I will save that post for another day! But, it is thought provoking, that is for sure! Thanks for your comments, Sunni.

    • Whoa, Mark! Now that is scary! I hope you knew at the time that it was a false cobra. We have coral snakes here, but they are elusive and are mostly found on the volcanoes. But, many of the locals kill all snakes that have patterns similar to coral snakes. Makes me sad, because they are harmless.

  3. Don’t be fooled by those possums. Sure, they’re usually not rabid, their teeth not that dangerous, but their claws can inflict great damage to the most trustworthy Doberman Pinschers. They’ll wreak havoc on your garden, cleaning out entire crops of pomegranates and lettuce, and they’ve got two stages of playing possum, the last stage a semi-coma which can be really disgusting. Around here in MIchoacan, possum blood and flesh are considered cures for diabetes and plenty of other ailments, so there’s always someone in the ‘hood who’ll take them off your hands.

    • Wow! I had no idea! I only know the farmers kill them because they kill chickens. But, they eat fruit, too and if they were in a farmer’s crop, I know they would kill them. They are now endangered on our island. The locals tell me there aren’t many of them left. So, I am glad we let this one go. Hopefully, he won’t return because we have our property all fenced in. Thanks so much for the information.

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