Wildlife

Opossum

Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)

Description

Opossums are the only North American marsupials. A marsupial is an animal with a pouch, like a kangaroo. Opossums have pointed noses and naked tails. They are the only North American mammals with prehensile (grasping) tails. The tail is used to assist in climbing. It also stores extra fat reserves, enabling the animal to survive lean times. Opossums have opposable thumbs on their hind feet which help them to grip branches and climb. They are the only non-primates with opposable thumbs. Opossums have the most teeth of any North American mammal.

Habits and Habitats

While their natural habitats are diverse, ranging from arid to moist and wooded to open fields, opossum prefer environments near streams or wetlands. They take shelter in abandoned burrows of other animals, in tree cavities and brush piles, and beneath other dense cover. In urban and suburban settings they may den under steps, porches, decks, garden tool sheds, and if accessible, in attics, garages, and beneath houses, where they make an untidy nest of sticks and whatever else may be available. The nest components appear piled together rather than woven or stacked. The old belief that opossum are nomadic without well-developed home ranges has been disproved. They have complex but flexible social relationships, with overlapping home ranges that allow high populations to develop when food is plentiful.

When baby opossums are born, each one weighs 1/200 of an ounce, is less than ½ inch long, and lacks fully developed hind limbs. Up to 14 young are born after only 12 to 13 days of gestation. Of these 14 young, only about nine survive. The entire litter could fit into a teaspoon. They climb into the mother's pouch, where they remain for about ten weeks. When they are big enough, they ride around on their mother's back

Opossums are scavengers, and they often visit human homes or settlements to raid garbage cans, dumpsters, and other containers. They are attracted to carrion and can often be spotted near road kill. Opossums also eat grass, nuts, and fruit. They will hunt mice, birds, insects, worms, snakes, and even chickens.

These animals are most famous for "playing possum." When threatened by dogs, foxes, or bobcats, opossums sometimes flop onto their sides and lie on the ground with their eyes closed or staring fixedly into space. They extend their tongues and generally appear to be dead. This ploy may put a predator off its guard and allow the opossum an opportunity to make its escape.

Opossums are excellent tree climbers and spend much of their time aloft. They are aided in this by sharp claws, which dig into bark, and by a long prehensile (gripping) tail that can be used as an extra limb. Opossums nest in tree holes or in dens made by other animals.

These animals are widespread and are sometimes hunted as food, particularly in the southern United States.

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