Virginia opossums are truly misunderstood and underappreciated animals. Many people find them to be scary, irksome, or even downright gross. Although they resemble rats, they’re not related in the least bit. They’re often blamed for knocking over trash cans in the middle of the night and being a nuisance. But the truth is, opossums help the ecosystem in many ways. We’ve got seven reasons you should learn to love this furry forest friend.
What’s the difference between an opossum and a possum?
The gray, furry, white-faced nocturnal critters we see in North America are technically opossums. Possums on the other hand are native to Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Possums have thick furry tails, while opossums have scaly, (mostly) hairless tails. Possums are also usually much smaller than opossums. Opossums tend to be about the size of a house cat. Things can get tricky because the “o” in opossum can be pronounced or silent when spoken. For this reason, it’s common to see the terms used interchangeably, especially in the US.
Opossums are North America’s Only Marsupial
Virginia opossums survive in almost any environment. They prefer forests, but you can find them in plains, swamps, marshes, cities, and suburbs, too. Their range includes most states east of the Rocky Mountains and on the West Coast of the US. They’re found as far north as southern parts of Canada and as far south as Costa Rica.
They’re the only marsupial native to North America. Female opossums have a fur-lined pouch. And just like their Australian cousins, baby opossums are called joeys. Opossums will have 1-3 litters per year, with an average of 8-10 young in each litter.
When they’re born, joeys are not yet fully developed. They’re blind, furless, and are about 14mm in size. That’s the size of a dried kidney bean. Once born, joeys must climb into their mother’s pouch and attach to a teat for survival. They’ll remain latched in the pouch while they complete development. After about 70 days, joeys will emerge from the pouch and climb onto their mother’s back. The mother will carry them on her back until they’re fully independent. When the young opossums are between 3-4 months old, they begin life on their own.
Opossums are Great Climbers
This species was built to climb. Opossum’s prehensile tails have adapted to grasp and wrap around things like tree branches. This helps them stay balanced and move through tree canopies with ease. They’re even known to use their tails to collect and carry leaves and twigs for nesting material. Contrary to popular belief, mature opossums can’t hang upside down from their tails. They’re too large to hold themselves for long. Only young opossums can hang for extended periods using their tails.
Opossums also have opposable hallux. The hallux is a clawless thumb-like big toe on their hind feet that helps them grip as they climb. Their feet look like a human hand. This makes their tracks easy to identify. Just look for the large “V” between the first and second toe of their back paws.
Opossums Provide Natural Pest and Waste Removal
Opossums are omnivores. They’ll eat just about anything. Think of them as nature’s garbage disposals. One of the main reasons opossums are good to have around is that they’ll eat pests. Ticks, roaches, snails, slugs, crickets, and beetles are all on their menu. So are voles, mice, rats, and other disease-carrying critters. They prefer fallen, rotting fruits and vegetables to fresh until food sources get scarce in the fall. They’ll eat dead animals and roadkill, including the bones.
Opossums serve a critical role in controlling waste and infectious diseases. They literally help rid the world of trash and pests. The next time one knocks over your trash cans, thank them for their service.
Opossums are Resistant to Venom and Disease
Virginia opossums are resilient creatures. They’re immune to bee and scorpion stings. They’re also resistant to the venom of most snakes in North America. Proteins in their blood neutralize the toxic components of the venom. Virginia opossums are known to eat rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes. This helps to keep those populations in check. Scientists have been studying opossum blood to develop new antivenom treatments for humans.
Opossums are also resistant to some illnesses. They rarely catch Lyme disease or contract rabies. Their low body temperature makes them ill-suited hosts. But people can confuse some of their defense mechanisms with rabid animal behaviors. That brings us to our next fact…
Known to Play Dead or “Play Opossum”
Opossums aren’t well equipped to defend themselves. They’re not fast runners. They don’t see particularly well. Their claws are meant for climbing. And they’re especially vulnerable on the ground. That means they’ve developed other methods to avoid predation and danger.
If cornered, an opossum may hiss, growl, and open its mouth wide to show all of their 50 teeth. They can appear quite fearsome. But if that doesn’t scare away the threat, opossums have one more trick up their sleeves. Opossums have developed an involuntary defense mechanism. If startled or threatened, they will play dead or “play opossum”.
They’ll typically curl up on their side, eyes and mouth wide open, and go into a catatonic state. Their tongue may hang out, and they’ll drool or foam at the mouth excessively. They even release a foul death-like stench and green body fluid. Poking and shaking the animal won’t revive them. They can stay like this for as little as a few minutes or up to several hours. This dissuades predators that don’t eat dead or decaying prey. Once the threat is gone, the opossum will regain consciousness and escape.
Opossums are Creatures of the Night
The opossum is generally a solitary, nomadic, nocturnal animal. During the daylight hours they stay in their dens. A den can be anywhere dark, dry, and safe. Opossums often nest in dead or dying trees, wood piles, or burrows that other animals create. They may also seek shelter in the hollow empty spaces of buildings. They’re most active from dusk until dawn. During the coldest winter months, opossums may forage for food during the warmer daylight hours.
Opossums roam the same area for six months to a year, depending on food security. They won’t tolerate other opossums in their territory except during breeding season. Their average lifetime home range is between 150 acres (females) to 300 acres (males). Individual opossum ranges can overlap, though. Opossums are known to forage between den sites.
Their eyes appear jet-black because they’re fully dilated to help opossums see best at night. Opossums also have a reflective layer in the upper retina to improve their night vision. This can make their eyes appear to glow when light is shined into them. Even with all these adaptations, opossums can only see well within a foot or less. They rely on their whiskers to help them navigate the world.
Opossums Are Here for a Good Time, Not a Long Time
Considering their size, opossums are one of the shortest-lived animals in the world. Many don’t survive infancy. Fewer than 10% live beyond their first year of life. For those that do survive, their average lifespan is 2-3 years. Young opossums are vulnerable to predators like domestic animals, coyotes, foxes, and owls. However, human activity is the leading cause of death for adult opossums. According to estimates, between 4-8 million opossums are killed each year from automobile collisions.
If you do accidentally hit an opossum with your vehicle, you should check the animal’s lower abdomen for a pouch. If you find baby joeys, then contact your local wildlife rehabilitation organization for immediate help. If you can, move them to safety and keep them warm until help arrives. Don’t attempt to handle or feed them yourself. Getting the surviving joeys into the hands of a licensed rehabilitator is their best chance for survival.
Virginia opossums are totally awesome. They just want to wander, eat trash, and make babies. They’re a great indicator of the overall health of any ecosystem. Remember, you’re a much bigger threat to them than they are to you. So leave them alone to do what opossums do.
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