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Outside magazine, April 1995

By Patrick Clinton

Do opossums play possum?
Edward Smithwick, Atlanta

Grab an average specimen of didelphis virginiana by the tail, and chances are he'll assume a characteristic pose: back curled, eyes blank, fingers clutching. Just to make your life more interesting, he'll also defecate, drool copiously, and release a green, foul-smelling liquid from his anal glands. Our catatonic marsupial, however, is not just pretending: He's really and truly out. "You can touch one of its eyeballs," explains Alfred L. Gardner, curator of mammals for the National Biological Survey, "and there's no reflex. The animal doesn't respond to pain."

The odd thing is, most opossums won't pass out until they're actually caught, at which point common sense would say it's way too late to play dead. So why do they do it? It may have something to do with the fact that many predators draw out the act of killing (think of a cat playing with a mouse before eating it), a habit that may protect them from consuming diseased prey. It's possible that when Pogo goes limp, the predator simply loses interest. Gardner has come across a good number of chewed and mutilated (but nonetheless living) opossums in his day, which he says suggests that playing possum really does work.

Except sometimes--as Gardner recently learned when called to consult on a criminal case involving a restaurant worker who'd been arrested for torturing an opossum. The reporting police officers were sure that the creature's neck had been broken, since it just lay there with its eyes wide open, drooling. "When it woke up," Gardner. reports, "it looked at them and passed out again." A classic case, except for the ending: To put the animal out of its misery, the cops tenderly placed it beneath a tire of their patrol car and drove over it.

Which goes to show, I guess, that nature can arm you against your enemies, but when you come up against someone who wants to do you a favor, you're on your own.

What would happen if I wore my Gore-Tex jacket inside-out in a rainstorm?
Bill Newman, Prince George, British Columbia

You mean besides looking ridiculous? Gore-Tex doesn't care which way you wear it. It's like a sieve that traps water while letting vapor through. As long as you don't plug its pores, it'll do its job. But think of the rest of your jacket. Usually, the Gore-Tex membrane is sandwiched between an outer fabric that sheds water and an inner layer that wicks moisture away from your skin. Reversing things will, as Patagonia spokesman Mike Harrelson puts it, "defeat the garment." The absorbent liner, turned to the elements, will soak up rain, and the jacket will grow heavy. Meanwhile, perspiration will bead up on the water-repellent fabric and soak your shirt. Though your jacket hasn't leaked at all, you'll feel wet, cold, and miserable--which is no way to feel inside clothing that's set you back a few hundred dollars.

What good are goose bumps?
Angie Roland, Salt Lake City

None whatsoever. You'd have to be a stunningly hairy guy--Howard Stern or somebody--to get anything useful out of 'em. Goose bumps are a vestige of the days when we all had pelts. Attached to every hair follicle is a tiny muscle called the pilo erector. When you get the willies or the shivers, this muscle pulls on the hair, so it stands on end. This is good if you're an animal: It makes you look bigger and more ferocious. It also keeps you warmer by trapping dead air. For humans, all it does is make us look like something from the poultry case. But it could be worse. We could respond to fear like our friend the opossum, by keeling over and oozing green fluid from our butts. Count your blessings, I always say.

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