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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

An opossum playing dead.

An opossum playing dead.

We were returning from walking Ody Brook trails with Kyyo Tae our dog. It was fortunate that Kyyo was leashed when we arrived at our compost pile. As soon as I saw a white face with beady eyes watching us, I said to hold Kyyo and reached for the leash myself. At that moment Kyyo saw the opossum and ran toward it. Karen quickly tightened the leash as I grabbed it to restrain the dog.

Fortunately, we kept the animals apart. Kyyo pulled toward the animal as Karen forced him to the house. Opossums are most active at night but it was not dusk on this dark day.

The opossum was grown but small so I think it was in its second year. Interestingly most do not live more than two years. When Karen and Kyyo left the area, I remained to watch the animal because it appeared to be moving strangely. Opossums move slowly with a bit of a waddle but this one’s movement was peculiar. It turned and began walking toward a brush pile. Oddly, it was propelling itself with only its front legs and dragging its hindquarters.

The back legs were limp and trailing behind as the animal moved slowly. I have seen them play opossum. When threatened, they faint and appear dead. They lay on their side with tongue out and eyes open. This is thought to be an induced paralysis that helps survive an attack. Most predators are not interested in dead animals. The opossum may even defecate a foul smelling substance that further repels predators.

I once came upon an opossum and it apparently “dropped dead” right in front of me. I decided to lie beside it until it became active but it out lasted me. After about 15 minutes, I got up and left. Later I read they may remain unconscious for four hours more. That time the animal did not defecate the reported foul smelling substance.

This recent encounter was unlike any other encounter I have experienced in that only the hindquarters seemed to be “dead.” I tired to find descriptions in the literature that reported other instances of only part of the animal showing paralysis and could not find any reports. Apparently this animal had previously been seriously injured.

The opossum was standing still when we first saw it. It was eating vegetable discards when we happened by. It stood still and watched us. When the dog lunged, it did not pass out as expected. When the primary danger from our dog was removed, the animal slowly turned and tried to walk away but dragged its hindquarters. I suspect its survival would be short. Life is tough but its death would nourish other life.

Coyotes frequently bring joy to our ears and bring a quick end for injured animals, mice, and garden raiding rabbits. We relish the abundance of life and appreciate a good balance of predators and prey in nature niches. There is only an abundance of life because predators and scavengers recycle nutrients and keep the flow of nutrients and energy on the move.

Vehicles on the road at Ody Brook killed two opossums during recent weeks. Road kill is more distressing because animals are not killed for the purpose of nutritional needs like is done by coyotes.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


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