Opossums (Didelphimorphia) are marsupials that carry their young in pouches like kangaroos. The Virginia opossum is the only marsupial found in the United States and Canada. Sometimes incorrectly referred to as “possums”, which are different animals indigenous to Australia, opossums are very adaptable, omnivorous animals that can survive in varied climates.
Roughly the size of a house cat, the opossum has a large snout, large canine teeth and feet that are covered in scales called scutes. Their strong tails help them to grip tree branches and other objects, and females have pouches in which to carry their young.
Opossums are primarily nocturnal animals that will roam wherever food and water is available. They will eat almost anything, scavenging human garbage, roadkill and fruits and nuts. They are also known to hunt small animals such as snakes, insects, birds and mice. Ever opportunistic, Opossums will sleep in burrows wherever they can find them both above and below ground, but will rarely put much effort into digging a den themselves.
Baby opossums are only about the size of a honeybee when they are first born and must quickly crawl into their mother’s pouch to survive. Once inside, the baby opossums will wean for 70 to 125 days until they are large enough to emerge and live on their own. Female opossums may give birth to up to 20 offspring at once, but the majority may not even reach her pouch. Although opossums are relatively large mammals, they have an unusually short lifespan of only 2-4 years.
Opossums spend much of their time in trees where they are more insulated from predators and use their claws and tail to easily grip branches and tree bark. However, they do often come down to flat ground to forage for food and are thus exposed to predators such as bobcats and dogs. When confronted with a threat the opossum is well known for its ability to “play possum”, tricking the predator into believing it is dead. Far from just an act, this involuntary response causes the animal to fall over; teeth bared, and even secrete a foul smelling fluid from its glands to make it seem less appetizing. Opossums cannot voluntarily wake up from this state and usually do not regain consciousness for 1-4 hours.
- When “playing possum”, opossums can be poked, prodded, or even carried away without waking up.
- Contrary to popular belief, opossums can not hang from their tails.
- Opossums are almost completely immune to the venom from most poisonous snakes.