Pseudocidal Tendencies

If you want to know how to fake your own death, you have many exemplary mentors to choose from: Andy Kaufman. Tupac Shakur. Elvis Presley. Jesus Christ. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The art of pseudocide is a revered tradition throughout human history. The most popular way to fake death is by drowning, as it eliminates the need to provide a body, though the 9/11 attacks also provided a convenient excuse for escape artists to vanish into thin air. The motives for pseudocide are many: most folks who fake death are evading the law, but there’s always the ever-popular publicity stunt, or fraudulent collection of life insurance. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, faked his death and fled to Paraguay in 1966 to avoid jail time for possession of marijuana. “Lord” Timothy Dexter, a New England businessman and famous kook, faked his death in the early 1800’s just to see how people would react. (His wife refused to cry at his funeral, for which he later caned her.) Connie Franklin faked his death by homicide in 1929. Later that year, the “Arkansas Ghost” was discovered in a nearby county and was brought to court to testify at his own murder trial.

Elvis Presley: Currently 75 years old, a Walmart greeter in Boca Raton, and 500 lbs.

But pseudocide isn’t just a lame plot device or a conspiracy theory for fans who can’t cope with a celebrity death. (I know you’re reading this, Stephen Jay Gould!) Animals use the tactic of faking their deaths to get out of a pinch, just as humans do. You know it by its more common name: playing possum.

The larval stage of the Virginia Opossum, before it metamorphoses into its final "roadkill" phase.

You may wonder why the Virginia Opossum, better known to us as simply the “possum” or as “redneck road chicken,” is the only marsupial in North America. The fact is, South America is full of opossums, with over sixty species. And during the Great American Interchange about 3 million years ago, sort of a zoological swap meet between the continents, the opossum was dearly bought. For just one opossum, one armadillo, the porcupine and the beaver, we North Americans traded wolves, deer, horses, elephants, rabbits, cougars, squirrels, rattlesnakes, and hundreds of other awesome animals. Those famous llamas and alpacas of Peru? Those were ours first. (You’re welcome, cabrones.) So we should feel lucky for the one opossum we’ve got. Even if, let’s be honest, it’s probably the creepiest opossum in the world.

Not exactly Pogo.

Death is the opossum’s natural habitat. It has a lifespan of only two to four years, unusual for a mammal of its size. Its success in North America as the only non-placental mammal depends largely on its opportunistic, omnivorous diet, its near immunity to snake venom, and its ability to pop out up to 13 little opossumplings at a time. The semi-prehensile tail (not strong enough to hang from as an adult, but still useful for climbing) is unique to animals north of Mexico, and both the pouch and the bifurcated genitalia common to marsupials is unheard of for any other North American mammal. But the real ace up their sleeve is their penchant for histrionic fainting.

Opossumplings.

It’s called “playing possum,” but there’s nothing playful about it. When presented with extreme danger, an involuntary set of physiological changes takes place in the opossum, starting with the loss of consciousness. Their teeth are bared and mouth foams in a facsimile of the dead man’s grin, and they effect the stiffness of rigor mortis. Now, you would think that fainting in front of a predator would simply save it the work of killing you, turning you into furry fast food. But the possum puts a convincing final touch on its death throes: a musk emitted from its anal gland that makes him smell like he’s decomposing.

Come on, man. We know you're faking it. Stop being a primadonna.

I'm not quite dead yet.

If the skunk’s putrid scent is enough to deter most predators, why does the opossum bother with the whole pseudocidal ruse? Because many animals have taboos surrounding death, too. Let’s pretend you are a great horned owl, which has no real sense of smell and therefore no problem picking off an angry skunk. You see an opossum, apparently dead, curled below a tree. How long has it been dead? Like, a day? You can deal with day-old possum. But what if it’s been, like, two weeks? How long has this Chinese food been sitting in the fridge? Better to just throw the whole thing out rather than risk a night driving the porcelain schoolbus.

Fun Fact: Possums also "play dead" after a cognac binge.

There’s a better name for this phenomenon: Thanatosis. It’s a form of self-mimesis; instead of mimicking another creature, the animal mimics the dead version of itself. The act of feigning death isn’t limited to opossums: Beetles, wasps, and crickets will do it, and the Eastern Hognose Snake put on a particularly dramatic death display, turning over and releasing that scent of putrefaction from its cloaca. Hognose snakes don’t just play possum to avoid predators; if a female is being wooed by an unwelcome suitor, she may fake her own death just to lose the creep. (Sort of an extreme version of, “Not tonight, I have a headache.”) Ironically, the animal that can stay unconscious and “dead” the longest has the best chance of survival. Unless, of course, your predator happens to be an oncoming truck.

The quickest way out of a bad date.

Long ago, when I was an actor in a theatre company, I relished death scenes. We staged a production of “Hamlet,” so just about everyone got to fake their own death at least once. It is a challenge to try to effect unconsciousness on command, to relinquish control over both muscles and mind and decide which of your breaths will be your death rattle. But recently a friend told me about ninjas who, when hiding in an enemy castle, could become unconscious or “asleep” by sheer force of will, waking only when danger had passed. Concealed in a cupboard or in the rafters, a “sleeping” ninja could slow his breath and limit his need to shift in place, becoming as close as possible to an inanimate object as an animal can be. When the time was right, he could gain consciousness, raise his heart rate, and continue with the assassination. So perhaps it is possible for humans to bring ourselves closer to death using only willpower, and perhaps ninjas have something new to teach us about the uses of thanatosis. It seems that faking your own death isn’t a product of a clever publicity stunt, but an innate animal ability. As that master escape artist Houdini might tell you, defying death is just mind over matter.

Ninjas, like opossums, also have pouches, are really scary if you bump into one at night, and have a lifespan of two to four years.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

18 responses to “Pseudocidal Tendencies

  • Tatyana Brown

    I call bullshit on your redneck impression. There’s no way a hick would use a semicolon.

    • quantumbiologist

      That’s a little offensive, Tatyana. Just because they’re only semi-literate doesn’t mean they can’t speak with semicolons! It’s actually a huge part of Appalachian oral tradition.

      • Copernicus

        C’mon, half the people in South Carolina think a semi-colon is the same as a colostomy.

      • Tatyana Brown

        Semicolons are part of an oral tradition? How so? Is there some kind of tonal indicator for their presence in a sentence?

        And I know composition professors who feel like they’ve finally gotten through to their students if, at the end of the course, each undergrad can properly use a semicolon in a sentence. Granted, nineteen year old college students are a crappy benchmark for intelligence/linguistic mastery. But, still.

      • quantumbiologist

        We use semicolons in everyday speech! As in the Opossum Country phrase, “Beaufort’s hand got tored up by the combine; ain’t got but one finger to lift his jug.”

      • Tatyana Brown

        Frankly, I’m a little offended by the term “Opossum Country” (which allows a complex, rich regional culture to be reduced to a scavenging dietary custom practiced by scant few members of the population), not to mention the subtle implication that men with stupid redneck names invariably work on farms (recklessly, to boot) and turn to drink. You should think about such irresponsible statements before you allow yourself to publish them on public forums–particularly ones where you wield authority.

      • quantumbiologist

        It’s cool. I got family in Opossum Country.

      • Tatyana Brown

        Oh, good. Then it’s just an indirect expression of self-loathing. Yeah, that’s totally allowed.

        You still haven’t told me how you can hear a semicolon. In both your examples, those sound like periods to me when said aloud.

      • Tatyana Brown

        Apropos of not all that much, the “colostomy” joke Copernicus made actually got me to giggle out loud.

      • Copernicus

        Thank you. And I think the actual percentage is much higher than 50%. Maybe 87%.
        Meanwile, my favorite user of semi-colons was James Agee in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

      • Tatyana Brown

        Heh. Topical. You’ve now made me feel a little guilty for constantly using the term “hick”.

      • Copernicus

        Brought some Tennessee to New York, some New York to Alabama, and some Alabama to anyone who wanted to read great writing.

      • Ben Bormann

        Not to further fuel the fire, but most times a dash can replace a semicolon. There *is* a sort of hanging pause at play with both. The difference is that while a semicolon ends a thought, it also bridges to a tangential thought; one that needs the preceeding thought to syntactically complete it. It’s used because in those spoken situations a period is too final a representation of speech, and a comma isn’t final enough. A dash, on the other hand, bridges to a linear thought—a straight connection in continuity with the original idea. Most times we speak in linear ways, however, and simply underuse the dash in favor of the more vague semicolon.

        Oh, and possums kick ass. You poke too hard or too many times at one playing dead, and they’ll spring up and wrap around your arm like a bear trap.

  • Copernicus

    To digress back to the topic, do any other marsupials engage in pseudocide?

    • quantumbiologist

      Actually, not that we know of! Australian opossums don’t play possum, and it’s never been proven in South American opossums, though these are not as well-studied. Most S. American opossums are very small and furtive. I did find evidence of thanatosis among a few species of cichlid fish in Lake Malawi, though!

  • Dead alike « Seeds Aside

    […] like them… Thanatosis. Or pseudocide. Despite the dark side, these words are […]

  • Copernicus

    Is it true that some blogs can practice thanatosis, temporarily mimicking the dead version of themselves?

  • Fachu

    Do you know what hormones play a role in Thanatosis?

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