So this week’s Creature Feature… the Virginia Opossum: North America’s only marsupial (mammal with a pouch), the only mammal with opposable “thumbs” and the only N.A. mammal with a prehensile tail (capable of grasping.)
1. Most of the time it seems people drop the beginning O and simply call this animal a possum. And if you look it up in the dictionary you will find both opossum and possum are correct when it comes to pronunciation. You decide.
2. I will do this one right up at the top of the list because it is the MOST IMPORTANT THING ABOUT OPOSSUMS. If you don’t read any further or learn any more, I hope to set the record straight on this. Though they are mammals and mammals can get rabies, it is extremely RARE for opossums to have rabies. Let me repeat, it is rare for an opossum to have rabies. However, many people think otherwise, especially when they witness an opossum hissing, drooling or swaying, all of which are things animals with rabies might do when infected. What these people don’t realize is that this is all part of the opossum’s bluffing routine–that they often do this as a first defense to ward off potential predators– bare their teeth, hiss, drool excessively. When, and if these things don’t work, the opossum may then “play dead.” (more on this later.) And it is not unusual to see an opossum out during the day! During winter or times when food is scarce, they might venture out during daylight hours. This does not mean they are rabid! None of these things means the opossum has rabies. Opossums are not menacing or troubling animals. They will not run after you or chase you down. They will not attack your children or your pets. Instead, they will always attempt to make a quiet escape. Scientists do not know why opossums are so unlikely to get rabies but one theory is that the low body temperate of opossums (94-97 degrees) prohibits the virus. (Note: Of course rabies is a serious issue. The best rule of thumb is to NEVER try to touch or handle ANY wild animal. Best to leave them alone and not take the risk.)
3. The Virginia Opossum has been around for more than 700 million years! That means they were here when the dinosaurs populated the Earth. Imagine! They are in fact the oldest surviving mammal species, and the reason why some scientists refer to them as “living fossils.”
4. Despite having been around for so many years, the average life span of a wild opossum is only 2-3 years. With all of the roads and cars populating those roads, there are a lot of collisions in which the opossum does not survive. Besides humans, opossums also have to look out for predators including dogs, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, great horned owls and hawks.
5. Speaking of predators, many do not eat carrion (dead animals) which is helpful if you are a possum playing dead. You have probably heard the phrase “playing possum.” Maybe you’ve even seen a possum that was alive one minute and then “dead” the next. When frightened, an opossum might roll over and look for all intents and purposes just like it is dead. Its tongue hangs out of its mouth. Its breathing slows. It may release fecal matter or a foul-smelling mucous from its anal glands. And amazingly, it might remain “dead” like this for up to several hours. Think of the story the coyote might relay to his mate upon arriving home: “Well I AMOST had a tasty opossum but then all of a sudden the thing died, right there in front of me! And boy, did it smell bad. I got out of there as quickly as possible…. so, no, sorry, no dinner tonight.” When opossums are frightened when crossing the road–say by a car–playing dead will not help them and may in fact result in their death. If you ever find what you think is a dead opossum, please don’t put it in a dumpster where it will surely be trapped –and WILL die– just in case it is NOT DEAD.
6. Opossums have a keen sense of smell that they use to find a variety of food. And they aren’t very fussy, a fact that many Moms would wish to be so in their children. Opossums are both omnivores and scavengers, eating insects, snails, slugs, rodents, berries, fruit, grasses, leaves, snakes, eggs, carrion, and garbage. They are nocturnal, preferring the cover of darkness to go about their business but will venture out during the day, especially during winter or when food is scarce. Opossums win the prize for the most teeth–with a whopping 50 crammed into their small heads. To give you some idea, people have 32 teeth, coyotes and black bear, 42 and raccoons 40.
7. Opossums have an amazingly short gestation period of only 11-13 DAYS! Imagine being pregnant for such a short time and never giving birth to giant babies. When the young–as many as 20–are born, they are the size of raisins! 20 could easily fit into the head of a teaspoon. The tiny, blind, helpless creatures find their way into Mama’s pouch and latch onto a nipple where they will stay for the next two months and then will ride on Mom’s back for another 1-2 months. Interestingly, there are only 13 nipples, so if the female has 20 babies, only 13 can survive. The average litter is 8 or 9.
8. Opossums are the size of a house cat, about 24-36 inches long and weighing up to 13 pounds. Their fur is gray or black with white-tipped guard hairs, a pink pointed snout, small ears and a hairless tail. They sometimes use their tails for grasping onto branches or for carrying bundles of grass but unlike popular portrayals of opossums in literature, they do not sleep hanging by their tails! Like much in our society this is a myth, largely circulated and then taken as fact. (To read some other myths, explore my category called Fact or Fiction. Here are a few about Bats, Spiders, Raccoon, Praying Mantids. )
9. Opossums do not hibernate during winter but remain active. During especially cold spells they may “hole up” temporarily. For this, they may use a hollow in a tree, a brush pile, the area under someone’s porch, an outdoor shed or other similar area.
10. Just like kangaroos–another marsupial– the young opossums are called Joeys!
I hope you are as amazed as I was to learn all of this about this common mammal. I also hope you help me in spreading the word that this unusual animal doesn’t deserve its negative reputation or needless persecution. Thanks for reading! See you again soon!