Even though you may think that the opossum is related to rats, you would be very wrong. They are, in fact, marsupials, so they are related to kangaroos and koalas. This means that their young are kept in their mother’s pouch.
Opossums are commonly referred to as possums, but they do have one key difference, and that would be their tails. The possum’s tail is thick and furry, a bit like a squirrel, and the opossum’s tail has no fur and is completely bare.
There are other differences between the two, but if you do encounter one, you can quickly tell if it is a possum or opossum.
The common opossum, although not the prettiest of creatures, still definitely has a really interesting story. Did you know that they shared this earth with the dinosaurs and yes, I mean real lifesize dinosaurs – there’s no Jurassic Park here!
But how did they survive when other animals couldn’t? Let’s find out.
The word opossum has been borrowed from the Powhatan language and was first used between 1607 and 1611 by John Smith and William Strachey.
The word possum was first recorded in 1613, and Smith described it as ‘hath a head like a swine… tail like a rat… of the bigness of a cat,’ and to be fair that is a really accurate description of this scrappy little creature. The Powhatan word actually translates to ‘white dog or dog-like beast.’
When the Europeans arrived in Australia, they quickly borrowed the term possum to describe the Australian marsupials that were only distantly related. These marsupials are more closely related to the likes of kangaroos.
A fully grown opossum is going to be around the same size as a standard house cat, and they are usually grey in color with a white face. Their noses are long and pointed with beady dark eyes, and their ears are small and round, like a teddy bear minus the fur.
The opossum has four short legs, but their hind feet have an opposable digit a bit like our thumb, which helps them to hold on when climbing trees. Their tail is also key to helping them to hold on when climbing as well as for baby opossums to hold on to their mom when she carries them on her back.
Even though they have this prehensile tail, they do not hang upside down which many believed they do.
Female opossums have a pouch which is one of the reasons that they are classed as a marsupial and like most marsupials the males have a forked penis.
These small marsupials also have a mouth full of around 50 razor-sharp teeth but as mammals go this is considered a lot of teeth.
Where Do Opossums Live?
Opossums live throughout North, South, and Central America. But the Virginia opossum is known to live as far north as Canada. There are other species of the opossum that live throughout countries in the south of the United States.
The Didelphis virginiana or Virginia opossum is normally found living in wooded areas, but to be honest, their habitat varies hugely. Normally they live in areas such as forests, mangrove swamps, rainforests, shrubland, and eucalyptus forests.
Opossums are not known for putting much work into their burrows and are quite happy to take over abandoned burrows rather than dig their own. They have also been known to take up homes in tree holes too.
Evolution and Classification
Virginia opossums are another animal that is referred to as a ‘living fossil’ in a similar way to the giant panda. The oldest opossum fossil is around 20 million years old, and it is believed that they started life in the Amazonia region of northern South America.
These furry little creatures diversified at an astounding rate, and this is how we think that they survived when many other species did not.
It is also believed that the large opossum Didelphis gradually got bigger over time as other species that were less diverse died out.
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Class: Mammalia
- Order: Didelphimorphia
- Family: Didelphidae
There are over 100 different species of opossum, but only one the Didelphis virginiana commonly known as the Virginia opossum is native to North America and Canada.
Here are some of the other types of opossum
Bare-tailed Woolly Opossum
Live mostly in central and south America but can also be found as far north as Mexico. They breed from October to April and have an average of 5 babies per litter.
Derby’s Woolly Opossum
With a lifespan of around 6.5 years, it is one of the longest of these pouched marsupials. But these guys are tiny in comparison to the Virginia opossum weighing just 245-370 grams and having a length of 24-28 inches.
Brown Four-eyed Opossum
Quite a large opossum that lives in central and south America. They live to be around 3-4 years old in the wild and have predators such as owls, eagles, jaguars, and bush dogs, but unlike their Virginia cousins, they don’t use ‘playing possum’ or feigning death as a form of defense.
Big Lutrine Opossum
These opossums have a body that very much resembles that of an otter, so it is no surprise that their genus name Lutreolina in Latin means ‘otter-like.’
These are just a few of the many different type of opossums that there are in the world, everyone has predators, but they have survived millions of years.
Facts About Opossums
Here are some amazing facts about cute opossums:
Opossum Age and Size
Opossums have a relatively short lifespan and, in the wild, will only live between 2 and 4 years old. They reach maturity at about 6-8 months old. They are considered small to medium-sized mammals.
Most Opossums grow to be around 2.5 feet in length from nose to tail and only weigh around 8.8 to 13.2 pounds, so they are not very big at all.
Female Opossum Pouch
Female opossums have a pouch and once their young are born they crawl into their mother’s pouch, inside they will find 13 teats which they latch onto. Unfortunately, those that do not find a teat will perish. The baby opossums stay latched for around two months, where their growth and development continue.
Unfortunately, opossums have a large number of predators, from foxes, dogs, bobcats, and cats. Yet their greatest predator is humans. In some regions, the opossum is hunted for food, but cars also pose a huge threat to these furry rat-like creatures.
When they are threatened, they will growl, belch, hiss, and run. They have also been known to urinate and defecate as a form of defense. And when all these things fail, they will ‘play possum’, which is when they play dead as a defense. More about this later on.
Opossums are scavengers and eat dead animals, rodents, birds, and insects. But they have also been known to eat eggs, frogs, as well as fruits, and grain. Opossums need a large amount of calcium from their diet; they get this by eating the skeletal remains of rodents and roadkill.
These furry scavengers often scavenge from human homes and are well-known for getting into garbage cans and eating pet food such as dog and cat food.
Larger Didelphini opossums often eat venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes and pit vipers. But how do they survive the venom, you may be wondering, well, they are actually immune to the venom of these snakes, which is believed to be an adaptation of this particular type of opossum.
Characteristics of Opossum
The various characteristics of opossums are explained below:
Reproduction and Lifecycle
Opossums start mating in mid-winter and usually finish around mid-summer. During this time, the male opossum makes a series of weird and wonderful clicking noises with his mouth in order to attract opossums of the opposite sex.
A litter can be up to 20 babies, and how many litters they have in a year is very much dependent on the climate in which they live. Sadly, less than half of their babies will survive to adulthood as their mother’s pouch only has 13 teats and so can only support that many babies at one time.
They will continue to stay with their mom for around 100 days after leaving the pouch and their mom will continue to carry them around on her back, even while she is hunting and scavenging for food.
Joeys (which is what young opossums are called) tend to leave their moms once they can take care of themselves usually around 4 months old.
Joeys reach sexual maturity at 6-8 months and live for 2-4 years.
These tree-dwelling animals are most definitely scavengers, and the long nose of the Virginia opossum helps to find a whole host of delicacies from plants, fruits, insects, venomous snakes, and even carrion which is dead animals. They are also well known for scavenging from garbage cans and even pet food.
The nocturnal opossum roams around during the night, looking for tasty bugs, snails, mice, and even ticks. A single opossum can eat up to 5,000 ticks per year, and by doing so, they protect other wildlife, including humans, from tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease.
Living with Wildlife
Opossums live in a wide range of habitats, and let’s see how they behave around others.
Trails and Tracks
The good news is that opossum tracks are easy to identify. Each of their feet has five toes, and the rear footprint will look a bit like that of a young child because of the opposable thumb.
Tracks are usually around two inches in diameter, and the back ones are a little bit larger and are accompanied by a dragging mark that has been made by their tail.
If you have opossums living in your home or garden, then you will likely find tracks on the decking, downpipes, and trees that they have climbed to get into your home or scavenge in your dumpsters.
If you are wondering whether you have a furry lodger in your basement, droppings may help you figure out exactly which one it is. If it is an opossum invasion, you have one way to be sure is from their poop, as they have a reputation for producing a lot of it. But what makes theirs different from any other potential lodger?
Opossum poop looks a lot like dog poop, so if you don’t have a dog at home, this will be one clear way to determine if an opossum has moved in. However, if you do have a dog, this is where it gets tricky.
But opossums like to leave their waste in a big pile, and it usually consists of two to three large droppings; you will be looking for something that is around 1 to 3 inches in length, and the absolutely disgusting smell will also be an early indicator that it is an opossum.
Unfortunately, their poop can also be extremely dangerous as it can contain bacteria that can cause things like leptospirosis and salmonella.
Playing possum is when an opossum is feigning death as a defense mechanism. But this is not a conscious act; it’s a bit like fainting for humans and is completely involuntary.
So what happens is they roll over, go stiff, close their eyes, and bare their teeth, saliva foams around their mouth, and they emit a foul-smelling fluid. This weird catatonic state can last for up to four hours, but as the opossum has proved is actually an effective line of defense against a predator looking for a hot meal.
These tree climbers are built for exactly that – climbing trees. From their hind feet with an opposable thumb to their prehensile tail that allows them to hang upside down. But the funny thing is that you will rarely see them hanging in trees, and in fact, it is usually only juveniles that do this.
The opossum makes a host of different noises and calls depending on the situation they find themselves in. If they are trying to attract a male, they will make clicking noises, but if they feel threatened by a predator, they will make hissing and growing noises.
A baby opossum makes a sound like a sneeze to attract its mother. But these animals are solitary creatures, so if you are hearing them make noise, it would usually mean that there is a group of them nearby.
Opossums Prevention & Status
Here is an overview of opossum prevention and status.
Trapping opossums are often used to remove them humanely and relocate them to a more desirable location. Things like lures such as apples, fish, and pet food have all been proven to work well in enticing them into a live trap.
It is not illegal to trap an opossum, but it does require some specialized knowledge, so you may be better off calling in the professionals if you find that you have an opossum problem.
Public Health Concerns
Even though they may look cute, these animals are wild mammals, and that does mean that they can carry some really nasty diseases that can affect both humans and domesticated animals.
They can carry diseases such as tuberculosis, tularemia, spotted fever, coccidiosis, and loads of other diseases. Although rare, it is possible for them to carry rabies, but when it comes to pets, they can carry ticks and fleas, which can be transferred to our beloved furry babies.
Now, this can be tricky, and no one should really be considering keeping an opossum as a pet. But there are some wildlife that can be kept depending on the state you live in and whether it is considered a native species.
So, for example, the Virginia opossum is a native species in the United States and Canada, and states such as Colorado and Delaware will allow you to keep opossums. Now some states will let you keep an opossum as long as you have the relevant permits, but these animals should be living in the wild where they belong.
how Many Babies Do Opossums Have?
Opossums can have 20 or more babies in a single litter, but unfortunately, fewer than half will actually survive to adulthood.
how Long Do Possums Live in Captivity?
The average lifespan of a possum is one to two years in the wild, but this actually doubles when they live in captivity. The oldest captive possum was four years and five months old.
Are Opossums Mammals?
There are three types of mammals: placental, marsupials, and monotremes. Now an Opossum is both a mammal and also a marsupial as they have a pouch.
What Is a Group of Opossums Called?
A group of opossums is actually called a passel.
The Virginia opossum is a nocturnal opossum that is very much a scavenger. They are both mammals and marsupials and care for their young using a pouch in the same way as kangaroos do.
Although they have a wide range of predators, the biggest being humans, these guys have stable numbers in the wild.
So whether you love them or hate them, these furry guys are adaptable, meaning that they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. And they do help humans by keeping tick-borne diseases at bay as well as cleaning up any carrion or road kill.