Opossums are commonly found marsupials of the Western Hemisphere. They are often looked upon as filthy vermin, but some even adopt them as pets. Here’s some interesting facts about this creature, in this AnimalSake article.
The Fifth Appendage
Opossums have prehensile tails, and excellent control over them. They can carry grass or small items of food by wrapping their tail around it, or use it for support while climbing. However, contrary to Ice Age-fueled popular misconception, adult opossums don’t hang from trees with their tails, since the tails are not strong enough to support their weight.
Opossums, commonly called possums, are the only marsupials found in North America. Mostly associated with Australia, marsupials are not so populous in the Western Hemisphere. Opossums are the glorious exception, with the Virginia opossum, in particular, being found all over eastern and central U.S. and Mexico, as well as on the Pacific coast.
Opossums are grouped together as the Didelphimorphia order. Here is a more detailed classification.
The Virginia opossum, the most common member, is termed as Didelphis virginiana.
Habitat and Distribution
Opossums are the most populous marsupials in the Western Hemisphere. They are found in North as well as South America, and are equally at home in the Patagonian steppes (Patagonian opossum), the Amazon rainforest (lutrine opossum), and the scrublands and grasslands of central North America (Virginia opossum).
They are extremely adaptable omnivores, and their diet depends on their habitat. Some eat fruits almost exclusively, and some almost exclusively hunt, but most are found somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Fruits and vegetables, small rodents, birds and bird eggs, frogs, snakes, insects, roadkill, and human trash can all be a valuable part of an opossum’s diet, depending on its location. Ironically, the risks in seeking out roadkill means that many opossums are themselves killed by cars while looking for food.
The water opossum, found on the fringes of the South American rainforest and wetlands, is the most aquatic marsupial in the world. It has webbed rear feet, and waterproof fur. It is the only marsupial that depends almost entirely on aquatic prey, such as fish, molluscs, and frogs. Incidentally, it is also the only marsupial in which both sexes have a pouch on their abdomen; in all other marsupials, only the females, who raise the young, have the pouch.
Opossums are semi-arboreal, i.e., they are found on trees, but not exclusively. They can live in burrows already made by other animals, or even in basements of houses.
They are nocturnal, and prefer dwellings which limit the exposure to light. They are preyed upon by many birds of prey, including eagles and hawks, foxes, and dogs.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
Opossums have some of the shortest gestation periods in nature. Some species have only 10 days between conception and giving birth. Most have a gestation period of about 13-15 days.
Like all marsupials, opossums are born at a very early stage, and complete their development in the mother’s pouch. At the time of birth, opossums are about the size of a honeybee. Up to 20 kids may be born, but most fail to latch on to a teat in the mother’s pouch, and some may not even make it to the pouch itself. They leave the pouch after about 100 days (75-125 is the observed range).
Like virtually all marsupials, male and female opossums have a bifurcated penis and vagina, respectively. In fact, the name of the family, Didelphidae, comes from the Greek word for ‘double-wombed’. Opossums only live for up to 4 years.
Opossums have one of the strongest immune systems in the animal world. They are immune to the venom of most snakes found in their habitat, including rattlesnakes and pit vipers. They are also eight times as likely to carry rabies as domestic dogs, but, incredibly, only 1 in 800 is affected by the disease.
They are also resistant to the botulinum toxin, which causes botulism in many mammals, including humans.
Opossums are known for their involuntary response to threats, called ‘playing possum’. When threatened, opossums automatically go into this mode of feigning death, in order to dissuade a predator looking for a fresh kill. The animal becomes stiff, foams saliva, and exudes an unpleasant smell from their anal glands. This state lasts for up to 4 hours, though they may wake up in less than an hour.
Opossums are eaten in many parts of the Americas, particularly Central America and the Caribbean. The common opossum, found in Central America and northern South America, is eaten in the Caribbean. The Virginia opossum used to be hunted and consumed in the United States, but this is now mostly limited to the southern region. In some parts of Mexico, opossum tails are considered a folk remedy for infertility. They are hunted largely for their coats, which have been popular in the fur trade for many years. Humans account for the majority of opossum deaths, due to roadkill or hunting for their coat or meat.
Due to their adaptability, variable diet, and short period of reproduction, opossums have succeeded in populating a wide range of regions and habitats, and are thus, not threatened by extinction.