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I saw a opossum (the North American kind) on a golf course the other day. It looked pretty dead - there was foam coming out of its mouth and flies buzzing all around it. However, I know opossums can convincingly play dead by involuntarily entering a catatonic-like state. Are there any tell-tale signs indicating a opossum is really dead? Would the flies be buzzing around it if it was actually alive?

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    Regardless of whether or not it is dead, you should not interact or handle animals that show signs of rabies (such as foaming at the mouth). You do not have to be bitten to contract rabies and it is a rather deadly infection. – Russell Steen Jun 20 '16 at 21:27
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    @RussellSteen Oh I wasn't planning on going anywhere near it. I was just curious – C_Z_ Jun 20 '16 at 21:44
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How to tell if an opossum is truly dead?

The only safe thing you can do is wait. Commonly after an hour, the ears of the Opossum start to move slightly. This is your indicator to know that it's an actor :)

After four hours of stiff ears, you can be pretty sure that you are looking down on a dead animal. Call the competent authority (local veterinarian, wildlife rehabilitator, animal control etc.) for assistance.

From Wildlife Rescue Rehab:

Give a "dead" opossum the benefit of the doubt before disposing of the body. It may be "playing possum" as an involuntary response to a threat, in which the opossum becomes comatose in the face of danger and appears dead. This may last from 40 minutes to 4 hours. During this time, the opossum lies on its side, becomes stiff, the eyes glaze over, the opossum drools, the tongue lolls out the side of the mouth, and green anal fluid may be seen. This fascinating defense mechanism helps the opossum survive an attack from a predator because many predators give up the attack if they believe the opossum is already dead. Leave the area and give the opossum a chance to recover and move on. The opossum will not respond to prodding or poking. When the opossum is about to recover, the ears move very slightly.

I know that this may not be the answer you were looking for, but it's the only way to be absolutely sure, without touching the animal. Interacting with wildlife (poking with a stick, touching it with the bare hand etc.), is no way to go.

Further reading: Opossum Society US, Wikipedia Behavior

Are there any tell-tale signs indicating an opossum is really dead?

As mentioned above, the only real sign is that it hasn't made a single movement (the ears ;)) within at least four hours. So, there aren't any real tell-tale signs.

Of course, if the head is apart ... Well, I think you got the concept.

Would the flies be buzzing around it if it was actually alive?

The opossum releases a stinking fluid when in fear. So, yes, laying there releasing stinky fluid without any movement will result into buzzing.

Fear can cause release of a greenish-colored anal fluid. Opossums cannot “spray”, and the only way this unpleasant-smelling body fluid can come in contact with you is if your clothes brush the anal area. It washes off easily.

From OSUS

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    Very helpful, thanks! So it sounds like it's entirely possible that the possum I saw was alive. I wish it the best of luck if so! – C_Z_ Jun 21 '16 at 19:36
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    Excellent answer! I had a similar one with most of the same sources, and you beat me to posting it! One additional caution. When driving, if you see what looks like a dead opossum on the road, don't run over it. Unless there's obvious evidence of dismemberment it could easily be "scared stiff." When less frightened, it's likely to get up and waddle away. This is especially true during the evening, as it's nocturnal, and is most active after the sun goes down. Although it has many predators, humans and cars are at the top of the list! – Sue Saddest Farewell TGO GL Jun 21 '16 at 20:04
  • Hmm... supposing you found an opossum as a kid, assumed it was dead, and decided to use it to practice your skinning skills... Would it "play dead" even while you were cutting it and taking its pelt off? – ShemSeger Jun 24 '16 at 20:49
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    @ShemSeger Oh, Yuck! – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Jun 25 '16 at 21:41
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    @ShemSeger I guess (!) it would still "play death" since it's not really acting but being in a comatose state. You may want to ask another question "Would a opossum wake up when injured?" or something. – OddDeer Jun 26 '16 at 6:18

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