The groundhog, or woodchuck, is a rodent related to squirrels. They scurry about forest floors and urban growing spaces. Groundhogs often rampage gardens and attract the enthusiastic attention of household pets, like dogs and cats.
Facing a cat or a dog may be a frightening experience for a groundhog. It’s almost impossible for the critter to win a fight, so if it cannot escape, there’s only one option left: To play dead.
Groundhogs do, in fact, sometimes play dead when facing predators. As a last resort, this technique can sometimes be effective and save the rodent’s life!
Why Do Groundhogs Play Dead?
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If you’ve ever witnessed a groundhog’s moment of panic, you’ll notice that, sometimes, they go limp and appear as if they’re dead.
Groundhogs do this if they can neither hide, run, or fight a predator. Playing dead is sort of a last resort for the critter, but often, it’s actually effective.
- Most predators hunt by instinct. They’re excited when their prey runs, and promote to pursue it until it catches it. A groundhog that isn’t moving at all doesn’t provoke the same spontaneous behavior in most predators.
- The predator may also get confused, thinking that the groundhog is indeed dead, and most predators avoid eating animals that may have died from diseases, parasites, or maybe rotting!
- Finally, when groundhogs play dead, they lay completely still, which might simply make it very hard to see for a predator!
So, yes, they do play dead if they feel threatened. But this behavior depends on the immediacy of the threat. It’s not normal behavior like it’s the case with an opossum, but they will do it from time to time.
Because groundhogs can only run seven miles per hour, they have to resort to other means of protection to survive threats and predators. Playing dead, also called Apparent Death, is one of their tools of escape.
Opossums And Groundhogs Don’t Play Dead The Same Way
Now, this isn’t the same as when opossums play dead. Opossums, when terrified, undergo an involuntary, catatonic state which gives off lowered vital signs complete with a decomposition-like smell. They freeze up, go stiff, and fall over; staying that way for quite some time.
Groundhogs, on the other hand, will play dead when they feel threatened but don’t go stiff. They perform this at will, curling up on their side and mimicking a position of death.
But this behavior comes about by their quick evaluation of any possible impending doom. In other words, it’s voluntary, and a groundhog can quickly snap out of it!
Groundhogs Play Dead Depending On The Circumstances
Groundhogs don’t truly “play dead,” they only act like they’re dead on a whim. They don’t emit smells of decomposition, go completely stiff, or have lowered physiology.
If they aren’t in any immediate danger, like having a fox chase them, they’ll play dead until they feel safe enough to run away. Groundhogs often do this in the presence of humans, who don’t present a noticeable threat to their safety.
They also do this when dogs want to play or cats want to fight with them because they don’t know how to take it. So, they play dead.