Weird Critter Profile: Virginia Opossum

12/04/2009

Sometimes the most common species are the oddest.  The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) definitely falls into this category.  Almost everyone has come across one of these fuzzy, gray mammals at some point or another, whether it was scurrying across the backyard, helping itself to the smorgasbord in your trash can, or even smushed on the side of the road, the unfortunate victim of a car.  But few people realize how truly bizarre an animal the "possum" is! 

Opossum_with_grapes WIKI
I present to you a list of odd facts about the Virginia Opossum:

  • Its common name is confusing.  This animal is found in much of North and Central America, not just Virginia.
  • It's the only marsupial found in North America. The majority of marsupial species are found in Australia and include kangaroos, koalas and Tasmanian devils.
  • Opossums are one of the few animals that seem to be faring well in the face of human development.  Naturally a creature of woodlands, opossums are extremely adaptable and use human-made structures for shelter, and are happy to feed on human food and garbage. In fact, they'll eat just about anything.
  • Opossums are immune to snake venom, and often feed on copperheads, rattlesnakes and other venomous snake species.
  • Global warming could actually be helping this animal expand its range northward.  Their hairless ears, feet and tails often get frostbitten in cold weather, which can be fatal, but as the average winter temperatures in North America rise, the opossum is surviving further north and can now be found in parts of Canada.
  • Opossums have prehensile tails that help them grip onto tree branches.  Young animals are light enough to hang from their tails.
  • Opossums have huge litters of tiny babies, sometimes more than 20!  When born, the babies are less than half an inch long and haven't yet developed fur, eyes or even hind legs. The helpless babies must find their mother's pouch and find a nipple to nurse. Unfortunately for those born in larger litters, there are only 13 nipples.  Those that don't find a nipple don't survive.  When they get too big for the pouch, the babies ride on their mom's back.
  • Male opossums have a forked penis.
  • Opossums are an ancient species.  They've been around for over 70 million years, which means they coexisted with dinosaurs!
  • Opossums have an opposable, thumb-like digit called a hallux on their hind feet.
  • The term "playing possum" is based on truth.  When threatened, an opossum will writhe around in mock death throes, froth at the mouth and then lie on its back with its tongue hanging out and eyes rolled into its head, playing dead. It also defecates and releases a stinky green gel from its anus. Would-be predators usually leave the seemingly dead opossum alone.
  • Opossums have 50 teeth, more than any other North American mammal.
  • They are very short lived animals.  In the wild they often don't survive more than a couple of years although in captivity they can make it to a ripe old age of four or five.
  • Opossums have a lower body temperature than other mammals.  A temperature in the low 90s is normal for them (98.6 degrees is normal for humans).
  • Opossums are highly resistant to the rabies virus.  This could be due to their low body temperature, which is not warm enough for the virus to replicate in the animal's body.

Photo courtesy of Patricia O'Tuama via Wikimedia Commons.


David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation. His goal is to inspire others to appreciate the wonders of nature. Meet David >
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