By Briana Magistro
SC Staff Writer
Opossums are the largest order of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere, and they are the only marsupials in North America. Typically called “possums,” this group of mammals contains many members, each diverse in some way.
Depending on the species of possum, some can grow as large as 20 pounds or as small as a mouse.
Possums are marsupials, meaning that the females will carry their young in a pouch-like organ while they are nursing. Other marsupials include kangaroos and wallabies.
The offspring, which are called joeys, are born after a very short gestation period of less than two weeks. After being born, they must get into the protective pouch in order to feed and be safe. Each offspring will have access to its own teat to feed from. Possums can have up to 13 teats, meaning that the female can successfully feed and raise up to 13 offspring.
Dogs and other pets can learn to play dead, but for possums, it’s a way of life. When threatened, adult possums will involuntarily pass out and play dead. Their bodies become stiff, and they secrete a smell similar to that of a dead animal.
Their mouths may foam, and their eyes may stay shut. They can remain in this state for about 1 to 4 hours. It is a behavior that develops over time, so babies may not be as successful at escaping from predators.
Another way that possums scare off predators is by growling or hissing. They have many teeth – relatively more than other mammals – and the most of any North American mammal. While hissing or growling, they will bear their teeth to look scarier.
In captivity, it is common for possums to bare teeth to new handlers.
Many cartoons depict possums hanging upside down by their tails, similar to a monkey. However, possums’ tails are not strong enough to hold up their body weight during adulthood.
They are semi-prehensile, so they can use them to steady themselves while climbing trees.
Although possum hunting in the US is no longer common, countries like Grenada and Trinidad have a possum season. Possum meat is used like chicken in their recipes.
They are nocturnal, meaning that they are most active at night. They also prefer dark places to live.
The Virginia opossum, otherwise called the North American opossum, lives throughout the eastern half of the US and parts of Mexico.
This species is what Americans commonly picture as a possum, a gray mammal with a rat-like white face and a long hairless tail. Typically, this possum grows to the size of a house cat in the wild, but can grow larger in captivity.
The Virginia opossum was introduced to the US during the Great Depression, so they can be considered an invasive species. Their populations continue to grow, and they are currently expanding westward.
This possum and some other possum species have opposable thumbs on their rear paws. These are typically used to grasp tree branches while climbing.
The Virginia opossum, and other species as well, are opportunists and will eat anything edible they can find. Typically, this species will eat fruits, insects, and small animals, including snakes. Possums have been known to show immunity to snake venom.
They will also invade urban areas and scavenge garbage cans.
Hibernating is not a common practice with possums. They will hide out in a den or shelter, typically one that some other animal dug out, during very cold weather. They have proven successful at finding food even during the winter.
Possums, like raccoons, foxes, and other forest mammals, are rabies vectors. If bitten by a wild possum, it is advised to go to the ER immediately. If possible, one should try to capture the animal, so that rabies tests may be completed.
Next time you are observing nocturnal wildlife, try to spot a possum. They are elusive and can be hard to find.
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