Author: Sammy Baker
Cover Photo: Ambassador Opossum Harvey
Arguably one of the most widely disgusted and misunderstood animals in North America is the Virginia Opossum. These animals have faced many hardships brought on by misinformed people that believe they are malicious and disease ridden pests. There are also people who don’t like them because of how they look -- large bodied with long, bare tails and large, sharp teeth. Virginia Opossums, however, are incredible animals and deserve more respect than they’ve been given.
Virginia Opossums are North America’s only marsupial, meaning they give birth to underdeveloped live young, who then crawl into the mother's pouch to fully develop -- like a kangaroo. The mother opossum is able to have up to 13 babies, which will grow in the pouch for about 7 weeks, after which they will cling to mom’s back as she walks. Honestly, a photo of a mother opossum waddling around with 13 babies grasping on to her long fur should really be shown next to the term “super mom” in the dictionary.
Opossum Mother by John C Bullas
Although their bare tail may not be something everybody wants to look at, it is extremely beneficial for the opossums. This tail is prehensile, meaning it can wrap around things like branches or fences, and can act like a 5th limb for climbing. Although the tail is able to wrap and grasp very well, it can only withstand the weight of the animal’s body for very short amounts of time, so opossums will not hang from the tail like some monkeys might. They also have an opposable “thumb” called a hallux on all four feet, which they use to grab onto branches when they climb.
Opossums have 50 teeth, which is more than any other North American land mammal! Interestingly, the males have larger canine teeth than the females. All of the teeth are very sharp but there are 4 different types of teeth that help with crushing and grinding different types of food.
Many people tend to demonize opossums because they believe they scrounge through their trash cans. While the animals may do this when food is very scarce, Virginia Opossums prefer to eat fresh foods like plants, fruits, insects or small animals like snakes and lizards. In fact, opossums are great animals to have around because researchers have found that they are able to eat up to 5,000 ticks in a single season.While they will not go out of their way looking for ticks, they will eat them as they come across them or while grooming -- aiding in parasite control. Opossums will sometimes also eat carrion (aka dead animals) -- like roadkill.
Speaking of dead animals...opossums are known to put on a very dramatic show in order to avoid confrontation. When approached by a predator, the opossum will sometimes play dead by rolling over, becoming stiff, drooling, and slowing its breathing. This behavior is involuntary, especially in younger opossums. They are able to stay in this coma-like state for up to four hours, causing predators to leave them alone, as many animals do not want to eat dead prey. Many people fear opossums because they believe they are aggressive and disease-ridden. However, as you can tell from their theatrics, they want to avoid any type of threatening encounter and are typically not going to pose a threat to humans. They may growl or show their teeth if they feel very cornered or endangered, but if left alone they will not try to maim you or your pets. Opossums also have a lower body temperature than other wild mammals (i.e. raccoons, groundhogs) and this makes it incredibly unlikely for the rabies virus to persist in their bodies, therefore the number of cases of rabid opossums is very low.
So, although many people might not think of these animals in the best light, they are really incredible creatures that deserve our respect. If you ever encounter an opossum in your backyard, the best thing to do is leave it be as it will likely move on quickly. The best way to avoid unintentionally luring the critters into your yard is to not leave pet food outside, ensure all garbage cans have tight fitting lids, and to pick up fruits or vegetables from trees and gardens!