Opossum Facts, Behavior and Habitat

Terry Krautwurst shares opossum facts, behavior and habitat. Discover everything you wanted to know about this nocturnal visitor.
By Terry Krautwurst
August/September 2003

Learn about opossum facts, behavior and habitat and the interesting lives they lead.
PHOTO: RICHARD DAY/DAYBREAK IMAGERY
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Learn everything you need to know about opossum facts, behavior and habitat.

It is an odd sight, this shuffling, waddling creature with the faintly foul odor, a thin trickle of drool at one corner of its mouth, its hair sticking out every which way, its eyes blinking, its tail comically naked.

No, I'm not talking about you when you get up in the morning. I'm talking opossum here — Virginia opossum, to be precise, and Didelphis virginiana, to be specific.

If you live in the eastern half of the United States, along the West Coast, or in southwestern Canada, you and D. virginiana probably have crossed paths. That you were at the wheel of a car at that precise instant also is a distinct possibility. The opossum is easily one of the most common of all North American creatures, both living and squashed-on-the-road. There's more to the opossum, though, than meets the passing eye. Look more closely, and you'll find an animal with a remarkable story.

Learn About Opossum Facts, Behavior and Habitat

With its odd looks, clueless demeanor and taste for trash-can fare, the opossum is widely considered to be only a half-rung above a rat on the wildlife ladder. This is not only the opossum's current reputation, but its historic one, too. Literally translated, the Santee Sioux word for opossum means "big rat." In the early 1700s, when English surveyor and explorer John Lawson traveled through what is now the Carolinas, he described the animal similarly: "They are a very stupid Creature, utterly neglecting their Safety. They are most like, Rats of any thing."

Other early observers saw more than a mere rat in the opossum's odd anatomy. Struggling to explain the strange New World animal to folks back home in opossum-less Europe, Captain John Smith, founder of the Jamestown colony, wrote: "The opossum hath an head like a Swine and a tail like a rat, and is the bigness of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth and sucketh her young."

An even odder menagerie of animal body parts went into the earliest European description of an opossum, penned in 1492 by Vicente Yanez Pinzon, captain of Christopher Columbus' ship, the Nina. He encountered the strange creature (a close cousin of our opossum) in Brazil. Declaring it a "Monster," Pinzon wrote that its front was like a fox, "the hinder a Monkey, the feet were like a Mans, with Ears like an Owl."

When Pinzon took a live female and young back to King Ferdinand of Spain, the animals created a sensation, and the opossum became a symbol of the wonders and weirdness wandering the mysterious New World.

Opossum Truth: Stranger Than Fiction

Our scientific knowledge of the Virginia opossum has come a long way in 500-plus years. Even so, its anatomy remains as astonishing as ever. There is, for example, the opossum's prehensile tail, which it uses to grip branches while climbing (opossums rarely, and then only briefly, hang from their tails). Then there are the animal's humanlike opposable "thumbs," actually its hind-feet big toes, which it also uses for climbing.

But most remarkable of all is the animal's reproductive system. The opossum is our continent's only marsupial, the sole remaining ancestor of opossum-like creatures that roamed North American dinosaur back yards 100 million years ago. Like other marsupials, most of which now live in Australia and South America, female opossums give birth to "living embryos" a mere 12 to 14 days after conception.

Between 14 and 18 immature newborns — blind, furless and the size of navy beans — clamber up through the mother's belly fur and enter her pouch. There, the race is on for one of her 13 nipples, to which the winners attach themselves and suckle (the losers . . . well, lose). Two months later, the young have developed enough to emerge from the pouch and cling to their mother's back as she rambles about at night, sniffing for food. In another three or four weeks, the young will be on their own. When they're just 7 to 8 months old, those babies can start making babies, too.

Given the opossum's exceedingly short life span for an animal its size — a fleeting 18 months — the species likely would have died out long ago without this remarkably efficient and prolific reproductive strategy. Even conception has been made doubly sure in the opossum. The female's reproductive tract is branched and leads to not one but two side-by-side uteri. Correspondingly, the male possesses a "double pronger," or less euphemistically, a forked penis, that sends sperm swimming in pairs, one for each uterus. The male's unusual equipment, made the more so by its bluish-purple color, fathered the myth that opossums mate through the nose of the female, who then, after waiting two weeks, sneezes the young into her pouch.

Playing 'Possum: Dead or Alive?

Of course, the best known of all myths and half-truths concerning the opossum is that, when faced with danger, it plays dead.

Actually, given any option, the humble opossum will lowtail it in the opposite direction of a threat. And when cornered, an opossum's demeanor is anything but lifeless — it'll bare all 50 of its pointed teeth and hiss ferociously. That behavior really is an act, since the animal is easy quarry. Even a mildly determined human can chase down an opossum running at full shuffle.

It's only when the creature is attacked or caught that it shifts into the mode we call "playing 'possum:" Its back and toes curl, the tongue lolls out, the body goes limp, and its breathing seems to cease. Its bowels empty. Poke it, prod it — no response.

Mighty good acting, if it was an act. But most scientists now agree that a conked-out opossum really is out, involuntarily cast by its fear-stricken nervous system into a catatonic state. The animal is oblivious to pain and rough treatment, right down to its reflexes. You can touch its eyeballs and it won't blink.

More importantly, a predator can bat it around, claw it, chew on it, even break bones, without eliciting so much as a wriggle. For many wild carnivores, such lifeless cuisine is a turnoff — a response, biologists theorize, that evolved to keep predators from eating diseased prey.

Unless it's an especially bad day for the opossum, the attacker loses interest and walks away. Several minutes — or hours later, the marsupial snaps out of it, alive, though not necessarily unharmed. Studies of opossum populations show a high percentage with multiple healed — over bites and bone fractures. Opossums are tough little rascals. They're even immune to the venom of rattlesnakes and other pit vipers.

A Nocturnal Survivor

The opossum's nocturnal nature undoubtedly helps keep it out of harm's way too. Great horned owls are its most serious natural enemy, second only to its two unnatural enemies, humans and their best friends — dogs.

Even more significantly, the Virginia opossum has proven to be one of nature's most adaptive creatures. From its original territory in the sunny South, the opossum has steadily expanded its range northward into increasingly colder climes. In wintry northern states, opossums commonly emerge into spring with frostbitten tails and ears, but alive nonetheless.

And while the spread of the human species has been the downfall of too many animals, somehow D. virginiana has learned to thrive in our midst. Its omnivorous palate, once limited to such wild fare as insects, frogs and fruit, now rejoices in pet food and garbage, too.

No wonder the opossum is North America's oldest living mammal. It is, quite simply, a survivor against all odds. It was here long before us, and may well be here long after we're . . . well, that's an open question. But it's one worth considering the next time you hear a rattle at your trash cans, and shine a flashlight just in time to see a "humble" opossum waddling away, belly full.


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