Playing Possum

Playing possum is something that Virginia opossums do, but so do some other animals—including humans. But because it can help animals to outsmart a threatening predator, can it save us from a terrorist shooter or a rapist or a grizzly attack? A few plucky people have credited their survival through mass shootings in America and Europe to acting dead.

When the Scottish explorer David Livingstone was attacked by an African lion he tumbled into a delirious, catatonic state that bore a resemblance to death. “(The lion) caught me by the shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground together. Growling horribly close to my ear, [the lion] shook me as a terrier dog does a rat. The shock . . . caused a dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening.” He survived the ordeal, not because the big cat turned its nose up at Livingstone’s “dead meat,” but after a native teacher came to his rescue.Poem_possum

I was musing about this story after I rescued a toad from our pool. It was a spadefoot toad (Scaphiopus holbrookii), so-called because it has a black, horny spur on each hind leg for digging holes. We rarely see this species because it lives most of the year underground and only ventures out in warm, wet weather.

When I saw it floating with outstretched limbs I guessed it was alive, but after netting it and holding it in my palm it was curled up as if it was dead. Motionless and unresponsive, its eyes were half-closed and both pairs of limbs were gathered in a praying attitude (for a toad). It didn’t fool me, but the attempt might be beguiling to someone who wanted to eat it. So I set it down on a rock beside the frog pond and stood back to watch. Two minutes later an eye cracked open, then a limb extended tentatively, and next it had disappeared into the pond with a fruity “plop.”

spadefoot toad plays possum
spadefoot toad plays possum

I can’t find any reference to spadefoot toads playing dead (scientifically called thanatopsis/ thanatosis), although it has been observed in other amphibians and when I cast a wider search I found examples in a range of animals. Some, like the toad, simply look moribund when threatened, but the hog-nosed snake goes further by emitting a foul odor to repel predators from taking “old meat.” There are sharks, iguanas, fire-bellied toads, cichlid fish, and even spiders that play dead, although in the last case only among males courting a much larger female. Even rabbits will sometimes act this way, although this might surprise people who grew up on a diet of heroic stories about Hazel and Bigwig (Watership Down by Richard Adams). Orcas have no predators so when they are acting dead they hope to trick their prey.

Scaphiopus holbrookii
Back from the dead

It must have taken many generations for these behaviors in toads and other prey species to replace the more natural instinct to fight or run or hide. Evolution comes at a high price of mortality until the hunted have perfected their act for fooling the hunter. But what should people do? Apart from those who play dead as art noir, it’s probably not wise in real life, and the security services don’t recommend we try when in dire straits.

Next Post: Where the Bee Stings


Crazy about Chelonians (Turtlemania)

As I exited our driveway there was a screech of brakes and I had to join a line of stationary cars on the highway. This is an accident black spot. But while waiting for the wail of sirens and flashing lights of emergency vehicles, the lead car in the opposite lane started moving forward. I rolled down my window as it passed and watched the driver curl a grin under his mustache. I wondered about the dark humor and what those ahead of me could see as we crept forward and rubbernecked to the roadside. Soon enough I too was smiling.

Something looking like an upturned brown soup bowl was padding slowly to the safety of the grassy verge. It was a yellow-back slider. Had the reptile been a snake instead of a turtle it would never stop traffic: some motorists would even swerve to guarantee it never completed the crossing. Perhaps it is the strange beauty and harmlessness of turtles that touches our kinder hearts, or maybe turtle dreams because they symbolize good things—fertility, wisdom and longevity.

Rhodin poem

There are twenty-four species of turtles inhabiting Virginia’s waterways and coastline—from the tiny Eastern Musk Turtle (2-4”) to the grotesque Snapping Turtle (18”) to the giant Leatherback Turtle (record carapace length 74”), but only one of them is a landlubber.

Eastern box turtle
Eastern box turtle

When I first saw Terrence on our lawn I assumed he was a pet tortoise that had escaped from a neighbor’s yard, but I was wrong on both counts. He is an Eastern Box Turtle and a wild Virginian. Europeans differentiate turtles and tortoises according to whether they are aquatic or terrestrial, but they are all called turtles in America. I may have been mistaken on another account because I assumed Terrence was male, but I didn’t rudely turn his shell over to examine his plastron. Perhaps “he” is a Teresa.

Updike poem

Terrence seems to nonchalantly trust that his carapace will keep him safe, and only ducks inside for a minute when I hold him or rub his shell. A bony carapace has been a wonderful protector of his tribe for 200 million years, but not any longer since a new predator on wheels arrived on the block. We mourn highway casualties.

Terrence - a curious chelonian
Terrence – a curious chelonian

Perhaps it is their naivety, vulnerability and inoffensiveness that appeals to us, or that innocent head swiveling on its periscope at a dangerous world that makes even aggressive drivers slam on brakes to avoid making chelonian pie. There are few non-furry animals we love more than tortoises/ turtles, especially box turtles and colorful terrapins. Sometimes they benefit from our care, but often they suffer from it. Thousands are legally collected for the pet trade in South Carolina (plus others in Europe), but few thrive in captivity for long, and I regret owning another Terrence when I was a boy.

When I see box turtles I wonder if they will be lucky to outlive me. They have more lives than cats, and are the longest-living animals in the region. Potential centenarians.

You might expect that great longevity will help to preserve the species, but not so—perhaps even the opposite. I mused about the evolutionary trade-off between longevity and fertility in Cheating Time (Macmillan 1996), and a potted story goes like this—

A species living in a protected environment (like a hard shell) or less vulnerable to predation, disease and starvation by virtue of structure and habits is under less pressure to grow up quickly to make lots of babies for perpetuating its kind. It can evolve a strategy of making a greater investment in a robust body that lives longer and matures later, and it doesn’t need to be superfertile to ensure its genes will endure. Mayflies at the opposite end of the spectrum only live for 24 hours as adults, while turtles—well, now you know!

A stretched life plan has served turtles well in the past, and giant tortoises once flourished despite postponing reproduction until around 50 years old. But in the days of ocean exploration and long sea voyages under sail crews took them onboard for fresh meat, and colonists introduced egg-eating predators to their homelands. After decimation their populations have never recovered because their rate of replacement is plodding slow.

Turtle image on St. Helena 5p coin
Turtle image on St. Helena 5p coin

Jonathan is a giant tortoise that was brought from the Seychelles to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic in 1882 and is probably the oldest living reptile. Since he was already mature at capture, he had probably hatched around the year that Charles Darwin sailed in the Beagle in 1831. He now earns celebrity status living in the grounds of the Governor with a personal vet because of the distinction of great age and the threat of extinction for his species.

Believing that box turtles also deserve a special honor, some people have nominated them as the state reptile of Virginia. But when it was put to the vote at the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond, the motion was defeated. A delegate who spoke against the motion declared that any animal that crawls back in its shell at the first approach of danger and yields cravenly to murderous wheels is too much of a coward to represent a state with a proud military history. But if a turtle had made a defense of its kind at the Assembly maybe it would have praised their peaceable nature as a high virtue, and surely the Mock Turtle in Alice would have agreed, for he declared, “we called him tortoise because he taught us.”

Next Post: Is Playing Possum Smart?