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opossum

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Opossums are the only marsupials that live in the United States and Canada!

For most of U.S. history, possums were widely hunted and eaten. Although this is still the case in some parts of the southern United States, these savvy marsupials are now better known as pests because of their scavenging habits that turn garbage cans upside down and make a mess in their wake. They continue to be prevalently hunted in many parts of Central and South America; indeed, restrictions have been put in place to curb overhunting of these animals in these areas.

Fun Possum Facts!

  • Opossums are animals that migrated between South America and North America, and are believed to have entered North America at the Great American Confluence, which is when the continents joined, which is believed to have occurred about 2.7 million years ago.
  • Only one species of possum, the Virginia opossum, lives in the United States and Canada. It is also known as the common opossum.
  • Like other marsupials, these animals have a pouch in which they store their developing young.
  • Opossums have 50 teeth, more than any other land mammal in North America.
  • Despite their similar names, opossums of North, Central, and South America are not related to the arboreal marsupials of the suborder Phalans, which are commonly called opossums but are endemic to the Eastern Hemisphere.

evolution

Opossums are thought to have originated in North America, where they started turning into the mammals we see today. Possum-like creatures first appeared on Earth 65 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period and the end of the dinosaurs' reign.

possum 1

© AZ-Animals.com

scientific name

The scientific name for opossums is Didelphidae , which consists of more than 103 species in 19 different genera. Classified in the order Didelphimorphia , this mammal is the largest mammal in the Western Hemisphere. The word reflects the fact that these marsupials basically have two wombs – one is where the babies first grow and the other is the pouch where they continue to mature – "di" means "two". , "delphus" means "womb". The Virginia opossum is the only species found in the United States and Canada, with the scientific name Didelphis virginiana.

The term "possum" first appeared between 1607 and 1611. It is believed to have been borrowed from Powhatan, from the Proto-Algonquian word "apousoum", meaning "white dog or dog-like animal". "The first recorded instance of the word dates back to John Smith and the Jamestown colony in Virginia.

appearance

Possum with winter coat.
North American possums are usually gray with a white face.

© Cody Pope/Creative Commons



A type of mammal called a marsupial, an adult possum is roughly the size of a domestic cat. Possums are known to average about 2.5 feet in length from nose to tail and weigh between 8.8 and 13.2 pounds. These animals are mostly gray and usually have white faces and long, pointed noses. They have 50 teeth in their mouths – more than any other land mammal in North America.

In addition to having four short limbs, they also have special tails that are used in various ways. Because these mouse-like tails are able to grasp things, they are considered to be graspable. Thanks to this feature, opossums can use their tails to help with balance, help climb trees, and grab nesting material while climbing. Young animals cling to their mother's back with their graspable tails when carried. However, contrary to popular belief, opossums do not hang upside down from trees by their tails like bats do.

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These mammals also have opposing thumbs on their hind legs, which allow them to more effectively grasp things like tree branches.

Males are usually slightly larger than females. They also have larger canines and tend to be heavier.

Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) on a juniper tree in northeastern Ohio.
Virginia opossum ( Didelphis virginiana ). Possums have grippable tails that allow them to hold onto tree branches.

© WolfmanSF – Public Domain

Behavior

In general, opossums are solitary and nomadic animals with a distinctive, slow-moving, waddling style of walking. Primarily nocturnal, when they forage for food and engage in most other activities, the eyes of these mammals are very dark-adapted. During the day, opossums tend to nest in convenient burrows rather than building their own. Examples include tree holes and inside bushes or under man-made structures.

During the warmer months, these marsupials tend to move around. They usually go where the food takes them. During the winter, these marsupials tend to stay in more permanent nesting sites. However, they remain moderately active during the colder months, so are not true hibernators.

One of the most well-known behavioral traits of these animals is their tendency to play dead when encountering a predator. Also known as "playing possum," the technique is a second resort if a mammal's initial response to a threat—hissing, baring its teeth, and growling—fails to scare it away. If the predator continues to attack, the animal will become completely limp and enter a near catatonic state. Overturned, the marsupials may close their eyes or allow them to stare blankly into space. When its tongue sticks out, the creature appears very lifeless. What people don't usually know is that possums also usually defecate when they play dead, releasing a foul-smelling green substance from their anal glands. The animal can remain in this state for up to six hours; during that time, its breathing and heart rate slow significantly.

Although they are not considered arboreal marsupials (living in trees), they are excellent tree climbers and will spend a lot of time in the canopy. They have sharp claws that are great for grabbing on bark, and they use a graspable tail to help them climb and move around. Incredibly, opossums also clean themselves of ticks, eating upwards of 5,000 ticks per season.

Habitat

The sleepiest animal - North American opossum
Opossums often sleep during the day in abandoned burrows or hollow trees.

© Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock.com

There is only one species of possum found in the United States and Canada, the Virginia opossum. The species' habitat extends as far north as Canada and as far south as Central America. To the south there, dozens of other possum species may be found.

Opossums have adapted to survive in North, Central and South America, developing grasping tails that allow them to hold onto tree branches. The opposable thumbs on their hind legs also help in this regard.

Given the vast area they inhabit, opossums are able to survive in a variety of climates.

diet

possum playing dead
Opossums have been known to feed on humans and will go into litter boxes in search of food.

© iStock.com/rexlis

Opossums are scavengers. Conveniently, they are also omnivores, which means they are willing to subsist on plant and animal material. They are known for sucking on human food. In particular, they tend to go into litter boxes, garbage cans, etc. in search of food.

Opossums are also attracted to carrion (rotting meat), so they are often seen eating road kills. In general, a possum's diet usually consists of fruits, grasses, and various nuts.

These mammals also prey on birds, mice, worms, snakes, insects, and even chickens. Many species of possums are immune to the venom of rattlesnakes and rattlesnakes, and thus are able to prey on these creatures. This dietary flexibility is one of the many attributes that make opossums such a successful species.

Want the full details on a possum's diet? Read our guide "What Possums Eat"!

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Predators and Threats

Humans are the biggest threat to possums. Although no longer common in the United States, these mammals were once routinely hunted and eaten; President Jimmy Carter is known for hunting them down. Possum hunting remains popular in many parts of Central and South America, where local governments have imposed restrictions on possum hunting. However, opossums are classified as "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), so they are not considered endangered.

Reproduction, Babies and Longevity

A mother possum with her five cubs on her back scares a fallen log in a Shasta daisy field. Both the mother and her offspring are gray with white faces and pink noses.
Opossums are the only known North American marsupials, and females can have multiple litters a year.

©Evelyn D. Harrison/Shutterstock.com

Opossums mate from midwinter to midsummer. In one year, a single female opossum can give birth to multiple litters of young opossums. After mating, female opossums usually give birth in about two weeks.

Up to 20 opossums can be born in one litter. On average, however, less than half of those survive. At birth, possum babies are almost completely helpless. Newborn possums are blind, naked, almost transparent in appearance, about half an inch long, and weigh only 1/200th of an ounce; this makes them about the size of a bee.

Newborn possum babies will crawl into their mother's pouch. There, they encounter a horseshoe-shaped arrangement of 13 teats, which they immediately bite. Those without teats will die. Once latched, the teat expands and remains in the baby's mouth for about two months. At that time, babies' eyes begin to open, and they sometimes come out of their pouches and may be carried on their mother's back while hunting. They become fully independent at about three months old.

The average lifespan of the common or Virginia opossum is one to two years.

population

Young opossum looking for food
Opossums are not listed as endangered because their populations are stable.

© Amy/Creative Commons

Although they face a variety of predators—most notably humans, dogs, and cats—opossums are survivors capable of reproducing rapidly. Therefore, their populations have remained stable in modern times and are not listed as endangered.

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about the author


I was born in New York, got my journalism degree from Boston University, took a detour to San Diego, and am now back in New York. I love traveling with my husband, but always miss my favorite little Peanuts, half Chihuahua/half Jack Russell, all the trouble. We are certified to dive so one day we can dive with great white sharks and I hope I can swim with orcas too. If my house fits it, I'll add a pig – or a sloth.

Possum FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What do possums eat – are they carnivores, herbivores or omnivores?

Opossums are omnivores, which means they eat plants and animals indiscriminately. Scavengers are their primary means of survival, so they are known to raid dumpsters and other man-made structures to make ends meet. If they come across dead animals or carrion, they will take the opportunity to eat them. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find possums eating dead animals on the side of the road.

These creatures also eat many insects and rodents, which makes their presence beneficial to humans in many ways. In fact, they've been nicknamed "nature's little hygiene engine" for their tendency to feed off common pests. They are also able to find and eat ticks on their own bodies and can eat up to 5,000 ticks in a season.

Possum vs Possum: What's the Difference?

The word "possum" is derived from the Algonquian word "apousoum". Colonists who first encountered possums in the 17th century called them "possum" and "possum" interchangeably. This practice has continued into modern times, and both terms are considered valid. However, they do not denote two different animals.

Can possums get rabies?

Like all mammals, possums can technically contract rabies. However, it tends to happen rarely. Scientists believe this is largely due to the marsupials' lower body temperature, which is believed to suppress rabies. Contrary to popular belief, a hissing possum is not necessarily a rabid possum; the hissing is simply a normal defense mechanism the creature resorts to when threatened. Although opossums rarely carry rabies, they can carry other bacteria and pathogens, including those that can cause diseases such as leptospirosis in humans.

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Are Possums Good to Keep Around?

While it's understandable that humans don't like possums raiding their trash cans, the reality is that these creatures tend to do more than bad in the scheme of things. This is mainly due to their keen prey on various insects and rodents, including mice. In fact, the opossum has been nicknamed "nature's little sanitation engineer" for its ability to remove many unwanted pests from human-occupied areas.

Do possums eat ticks?

Possums are known to actively remove ticks when grooming themselves, so they tend to eat a lot of ticks. In fact, it is estimated that possums can eat more than 5,000 ticks in a season. They eat a variety of insects, so they also eat ticks they encounter in the wild.

Do People Collect Possum Skulls?

Possum skulls are sometimes used for decorative purposes, so they are often sold online.

Are Possums Dangerous?

Humans don't have to be afraid of possums. Rarely do these mammals get rabies, and they don't attack humans at will. When feeling threatened — for example, if trapped in a garage — possums will hiss, show dozens of teeth, and let out an ominous growl. If a human gets closer, the opossum is more likely to play dead than to attack violently.

Do possums hibernate in winter?

Although they become less active in winter, opossums are not true hibernators. When the weather gets colder and the days get shorter, opossums tend to hide in more permanent nests. However, they continue to emerge from these nests on a regular basis and remain active throughout the season.

To which kingdom do possums belong?

Possums belong to the animal kingdom.

What phylum do opossums belong to?

Opossums belong to the phylum Chordate.

What class are opossums?

Possums belong to the class Mammalia.

What family do possums belong to?

Opossums belong to the Didelphidae family.

What order do opossums belong to?

Opossums belong to the order Didelphimorphia.

What genus do possums belong to?

Opossums belong to the genus Didelphis.

What type of mulch do possums have?

Opossums are covered with fur.

What type of habitat do possums live in?

Opossums live in forests and farmland near water.

What are the natural enemies of possums?

Predators of possums include foxes, cats, and birds of prey.

What is the average litter size of a possum?

The average litter size for opossums is 6.

What are some interesting facts about possums?

Possums are thought to be immune to certain snake venoms!

What is the scientific name of the opossum?

The scientific name of the opossum is Didelphis Virginiana.

What is the lifespan of a possum?

Possums can live from 2 to 7 years.

What is the difference between a mouse and a possum?

The main difference between mice and possums is that mice are smaller in size, live all over the world and are considered rodent pests in most places. Opossums are larger, live only in the Americas, and are not usually considered pests.

What is the Difference Between Australian Possums and American Possums?

The key difference between Australian and American opossums is that opossums, native to Australia, are furry, have bushy tails, and primarily eat plants. Native to Central and North America, the American opossum is gray and white and omnivorous scavengers.

Thanks for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the 10hunting.com editorial team.

source
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