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Do Chipmunks Play Dead? (Understanding Thanatosis)

Do Chipmunks Play Dead? (Understanding Thanatosis)

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Out of all the weird methods animals developed to evade their predators, playing dead has to be the most creative!

Anti-predator adaptation is real, and the defense mechanisms vary from one species to another. Some rodents go for camouflage, some animals play dead, and some birds opt for trickery to escape a dangerous situation. But what do chipmunks do?

Do chipmunks play dead when they’re in a showdown with a predator? Apparently, yes! Here’s everything we know about it.

Do Chipmunks Play Dead?

Yes, chipmunks play dead to escape their predators, namely wild cats, raccoons, and snakes. Animals are no strangers to playing dead; it’s a defense mechanism called thanatosis that depends on the predators’ refusal to eat dead animals.

People living close to forest edges and urban areas are used to seeing chipmunks in their backyards occasionally. Some of them report seeing chipmunks playing dead when attacked by a cat, domestic or wild.

Some people even see dead chipmunks and attempt to remove their corpses, only to be surprised by a bite from a very alive chipmunk!

We’re not blaming any chipmunks here—these folks live in the wild, and they have to fend off attackers if they want to see another sun rising. But an issue remains: how long do chipmunks play dead? And how to know they’re only playing and not really dead?

How Long Do Chipmunks Play Dead?

Though scientists have long been trying to understand thanatosis, it appears to be a purely strategic act. In a way, this means there are no clear parameters for it—it’s unknown where, when, or how long the animal will have to play dead.

The reason for this lack of knowledge is that it’s hard to record an animal playing dead in the wild to study it. Besides, it’s unethical to do lab experiments by scaring animals with predators, so the research is still limited to individual experiences.

The answer to the question depends on the situation and the predator’s nature. Some predators will scurry off if they suspect the chipmunk is dead, while others will linger for a while. So, the chipmunk will keep playing dead for unpredictable periods—at least until the predator is away.

Having said that, chipmunks shouldn’t play dead for too long. If you have a pet chipmunk, and it’s been suspiciously motionless for a while, you may want to check its vitals and consider calling a vet.

Why Do Chipmunks Play Dead?

Not all animals play dead in the same way, and not all do it for the same reasons. Though most animals play dead to escape predators or threatening situations, some do it for food or sex.

Some predators act dead so that they can jump on their prey when it gets close and catch it off guard. Meanwhile, some animals, like spiders, play dead to get their partner to mate with them—as weird as that sounds!

Chipmunks belong to the category that plays dead for survival. When attacked by domestic cats or raccoons, chipmunks will drop dead—the only sign of being alive will be their blinking eyes. They’ll keep playing dead until they’re sure the threat is no more.

Is My Chipmunk Hurt or Playing Dead?

Signs of losing balance or seizures may be a bit similar to playing dead. That’s why it’s essential to know the differences, so you can get your chipmunk the help it needs in case it’s sick.

Here are some signs that your chipmunk is hurt or ill:

  • Losing balance: When chipmunks are injured in any way, they may get dizzy and start losing their balance. They may keep moving in circles and trip on their tiny feet when trying to walk. If you see your chipmunk losing balance, it’d be a good idea to visit the vet.
  • Passing blood: If the chipmunk is passing blood with stool, it’s likely suffering from some sort of disease. The same goes if it’s passing pus or suffering from diarrhea. In this case, the chipmunk may be dehydrated or carrying an infection.
  • Mouth discharge: Chipmunks sometimes suffer from mouth and nose discharge when they’re infected. If the infection is particularly bad, the discharge will come out of their eyes and ears as well.
  • Noticeable wounds: If you see wounds on your chipmunk’s body, make sure to give it a thorough inspection to make sure there are no more. You should also check the injured area to make sure it’s not infected.
  • Seizures: Calcium deficiency, or metabolic bone disease, is deadly for chipmunks, and it often leads to seizures and spasms. If you notice your chipmunk seizing or showing strange behavior, it’d be better to visit a vet immediately.

Unfortunately, chipmunks don’t show enough signs of sickness. Dogs and cats may get lethargic or stop eating, so you’ll know something is wrong with them. Meanwhile, chipmunks live normally until the disease catches up to them, and they start having seizures or losing balance.

At that point, it’s a matter of how fast you’ll notice something is wrong and try to treat it before the chipmunk succumbs to it.

Do Other Animals Play Dead?

Yes, many other animals play dead for different reasons. Guinea pigs, for example, are notorious for playing dead when they feel threatened. They aren’t the only rodents to do so, as we’ve established that chipmunks do it as well.

Some snakes play dead to prey on other animals, like the Texas indigo snake. When they play dead, their prey lowers its guard, then gets eaten as a result.

Opossums take playing dead to the next level. Instead of only laying there motionless, they’ll stick out their tongues and keep their mouths open to convince their predators that they’re dead. Not only that, but they’ll also empty their bowels—they deserve an Oscar for that!

Aside from animals, multiple insects will play dead to mate with their partners or avoid predators. For example, some grasshoppers will act dead by sticking their legs out in all directions. That way, they can fend off frogs and similar predators.

Final Thoughts

Yes, chipmunks do play dead when they feel threatened by a predator. They may do so if they’re about to be attacked by a raccoon, a cat, or a snake. We don’t know how long chipmunks play dead, but they’ll likely stay motionless until they’re sure the threat is gone.

Many animals have developed the same defense mechanism to keep predators from eating them and some merely do it for sex and food. In all cases, the act is hard to study because you can never know when an animal will feel threatened and drop motionless.


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