If you didn’t know, one of the ways possums defend themselves is to fall and play dead. When possums pretend to be lifeless, they play the part so well that they bare their teeth, foam at the mouth, and even smell “dead.”
The smell possums emit when they play dead is sometimes called possum spray. But what does it smell like?
What does possum spray smell like?
Possum spray smells like a rotting, dead animal. This smell makes their playing-dead “act” more believable, and it drives predators away. For some predators, the odor is just too offensive to withstand. For others, the thought of eating a dead animal is inconceivable.
The dead animal scent is not the only smell possums give off. So, in this article, besides explaining what possum spray smells like, we talk about other possum scents and much more.
Table of Contents
The Smell of Possum Spray
As previously mentioned, possum spray smells like an animal carcass. It gives off a putrid smell that backs up its playing-dead “act.” Of course, with a “performance” that good, most predators fall for the trick and leave the “lifeless” possum alone.
If you have heard the term “playing possum,” it comes from possums’ well-known ability to imitate lifelessness.
Possum spray is actually not a spray like that of a skunk. It is basically an odor emitted from one pair of possum anal glands. So, if what you perceive feels like skunk spray, it most likely did not come from a possum.
It would interest you to know that possums have more than one pair of anal glands. The other glands emit secretions for various purposes. Besides the anal glands, possums also have a sternal gland and a gland around their pouch.
Other Possum Scents
As mentioned earlier, possums have other scents besides the one they emit when playing dead. These scents come from their sternal glands and the other anal glands.
The sternal gland of possums gives off a sweet, musky odor. Male possums emit and stain their fur with this scent during mating season. Perhaps doing this helps them attract mates.
Female possums also emit a scent during the mating season, and this helps males find receptive females.
The scent gland around the pouch of possums – particularly female possums – gives off a smell that helps newborn possums locate their mother’s pouch.
When threatened, possums release a rank secretion from their anal glands. This secretion differs from what they release when playing dead.
Also, when scared, possums may release a different type of secretion from their anal gland. Besides this secretion, they may also pee or discharge droppings.
Possums also rub some secretions from their anal gland on tree trunks to mark their territory. They may mix these secretions with droppings or urine when marking territory.
Other Ways Possums Protect Themselves
Apart from playing dead, possums protect themselves using the following defense mechanisms:
To do the alligator mouth, possums gape their mouth and bare their teeth threateningly. Obviously, this works on many predators, including humans. For sure, when a possum threatens you with its teeth, you will most likely stay away from it.
Interestingly, even before baby possums have teeth, they do the alligator mouth. They probably don’t understand that it is only effective when their teeth are in.
Another way possums keep predators away is to cover themselves in drool. They work their jaws to produce excess dribble, and they will even make drool bubbles as the drool forms in their nose.
The sight of excessive drooling on a possum puts many predators off. They perceive the possum as sick – and that makes them undesirable as food.
Anal Gland Fluid
As we stated earlier, possums release a secretion from their anal gland when scared. The secretion is malodorous and greenish, and they may mix it with droppings or pee.
The harsh smell of the secretion discourages some predators from getting closer, keeping the possum safe.
Note that possums do not spray their anal secretions like skunks. An animal can only get the secretion on itself if its fur brushes the possum’s anal region.
More About Playing Possum
Possums do not play dead voluntarily. They do not deliberately fall to the ground, foaming at the mouth, tongue out, staring blank, and smelling rotten to keep predators off. The act is involuntary.
When exposed to intense fear, possums just freeze and fall dead to the ground. They do not try to do it; it is more like an automated fear response.
Even more interesting is the fact that possums cannot come out of playing possum when they want. Depending on their body, they will remain in that state for minutes or hours. Even if the danger is long gone, they will just lay on the floor until their body reactivates itself.
Other Animals That Protect Themselves Using Smell
Besides possums, the following are some other animals that protect themselves using smell:
- Skunk – you probably already know skunks spray a mixture of malodorous sulphuric chemicals at their attackers. This spray can hit aggressors as far as 10 feet away.
- Bombardier Beetle – these insects mix hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone inside their bodies to produce a hot, toxic, and foul-smelling spray. This spray can kill insects and some small animals.
- Stink Bug – you already know these bugs give off a terrible stench by their name. When threatened, stink bugs release a reeking chemical from their abdomen.
- Lesser Anteater – these mammals give off an odor about 4 to 7 times stronger than that of a skunk. The smell is so bad you can smell it up to 165 feet away.
- Striped Polecat – these weasels produce a secretion as malodorous as a skunk’s spray.
- Millipede – millipedes curl up in a spiral when threatened, then they release a liquid that smells awful. In some millipede species, the secretion is hydrogen cyanide – a foul-smelling and poisonous liquid.
Possum spray is not really a spray – more accurately, it is an anal gland secretion possums produce when they play dead.
The smell of this secretion fits the act perfectly as it smells like a rotting carcass. Both deeds (possum spray and playing possum) are two of many ways possums try to stay alive.