Opossum (Didelphus virginianus)


opossum.gif (35380 bytes)WHAT DOES AN OPOSSUM LOOK LIKE?  The opossum is about the size of a cat (4 - 14 pounds) and has rough grayish-black fur.  It has a white face, a pink nose, and a long hairless, pink tail.  This animal is well-known for “playing possum” or pretending to be dead when it is in danger.  They don’t always play possum, though.  Instead, they might hiss and drool and try to scare a dangerous animal away.  They can also try to run up a tree or jump into a hole.  But sometimes, they just pass out.  They might also throw up or go to the bathroom, anything they can do to make themselves smelly and disgusting so the predator will not want to eat them.  (Who wants to eat meat that smells like vomit?)  After a while, the opossum just wakes up and walks off.

WHAT MAKES AN OPOSSUM SPECIAL?  For one thing, girl opossums have a pouch for their babies like a kangaroo does.  Opossums are the only marsupial (pouch animal) in the United States.  Opossums also have a prehensile tail like a monkey.  This means opossums can use their tail like another hand to pick up things or hold onto branches.  Opossums also have an opposable thumb on each back foot.  People have opposable thumbs; we can fold our thumb across the palm of our hand.   This really helps you to pick things up.   (The footprint from an opossum’s back foot looks just like a tiny person’s hand print!)  The opossum also has a huge number of teeth, fifty in all! 

HOW DO OPOSSUMS FIND FOOD AND HOMES?  The opossum lives all over the south central and eastern US and in California.  Once it gets into the northern states, it can survive, but it gets frostbite on its ears and tail, because there is no hair to protect those parts of its body.   It lives in the same habitats as raccoons, and eats many of the same foods.  Opossums are usually nocturnal (night creatures.)  They are solitary, living alone most of the time.  These animals are fairly slow-moving, but they can run, swim, and climb if they have to.  Their sense of hearing helps them to find and avoid dangerous predators, and their sense of smell helps them to find food.  They are opportunistic feeders.  This means they will eat almost anything they can find.  They are also omnivorous, eating plants and animals.  Their menu includes fruits and nuts, green plants, insects, earthworms, birds, reptiles, and even dead animals like road kills.  In the spring, they eat new plants.  In the summer, there are lots of grasshoppers and toads to eat.  In the fall, it’s easy for them to find nuts and berries.   They eat different things at different times of year.  Opossums may live for up to seven years, but usually only live for 1 1/2 years in the wild.

WHAT ABOUT BABY OPOSSUMS?  Opossums do not dig their own dens, but instead use things like drainage ditches, hollow logs, or squirrels’ nests to make a home for their babies.  Sometimes they even share dens with other animals like skunks or rabbits.  Opossums may have two or three sets of babies each year.  Thirteen days after the female becomes pregnant, six to sixteen tiny babies are born.  They crawl to her fur-lined pouch and find one of 13 nipples to suck on.  They get milk from their mother and stay in the pouch for 2 months.  After that, they have fur and crawl out of the pouch.  (They are only two inches long not counting their tails.)  Their mother will carry them on her back, and after 2 more weeks, they are ready to eat grown-up foods.  In one more month they are completely grown up and on their own.  Their whole childhood lasts only 3 1/2 months.  Females are reproductively mature by seven months old, so they may even have babies the same year they are born.



Opossum Front Foot Print




Opossum Hind Foot Print

Notice that the hind foot has a thumb!


Rue, Leonard Lee, III. Complete Guide to Game Animals. USA: Grolier Book Clubs, Inc, 1981.
Stokes, Donald & Lilian. Animal Tracking and Behavior. Little, Boston: Brown and Company, 1986.
Whitaker, John O. Jr. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals. New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc, 1993.

Provided by the Pelotes Island Nature Preserve

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