Pretty as a ‘possum? Now, that’s a phrase you’re unlikely to hear. In fact, whenever I see posts on Facebook by friends who have encountered an opossum in their backyard or carport, a stream of comments inevitably follows about what ugly, rabid, nasty overgrown rodents they are. Recently, a friend who spotted one on her carport (attracted by cat food which had been left outside, but that’s a grievance for another day) received advice to “whack the sh*& out of it with a board.” Really?! I’m always saddened when I see such posts because if more people understood opossums better and knew what a benefit they are to the environment, they would have a very different perception. I tend to love animals that get a bad rap — like opossums, crows, vultures, coyotes — because once you get to know them, you understand that each species has its own unique intelligence and dignity, as well as its special role to play in the environment. Opossums are actually one of the coolest kids on the block.
Contrary to many people’s beliefs, opossums are not rodents. The opossum has the distinction of being North America’s only marsupial. As a marsupial, females bear premature young that migrate to the mother’s pouch (with a swimming motion) to continue their development. Opossum infants are tiny, about the size of a bumblebee — a typical litter of 8 to 9 young fits in a teaspoon. Once inside the pouch, they latch onto a nipple for approximately two months, at which time they begin to venture out. At this stage they will sometimes be seen riding on their mother’s back. By four months of age, they are living on their own, leading mostly solitary lives. With numerous predators and threats from urbanization, the opossum’s average life span is only about 2 years in the wild.
Opossums are exceptionally non-threatening and shy. In the presence of a threat, they will flee if possible. Having worked with hundreds of opossums during my four years rehabilitating animals at AWARE Wildlife Center, I can tell people firsthand that they are one of the least aggressive animals I know. They may have a nasty hiss, but they rarely bite unless tightly cornered. Moreover, opossums are one of the least likely mammals in North America to carry rabies. The reason for this may be that opossums have a lower body temperature than many other mammals, making it difficult for the rabies virus to survive in their bodies. In fact, the occurrence of rabies in opossums is so rare that a cow is more likely to carry rabies than an opossum!
Opossums are incredibly beneficial to the environment. Their diet consists of all types of insects (roaches and beetles are delicacies), snails, and slugs, keeping our gardens free of pests. Because they catch and eat mice and rats, they also help keep rodent populations in check. By eating rotting fruit and carrion, too, they help to sanitize the environment. Opossums are also immune to the venom of poisonous snakes and will feed on snakes such as rattlesnakes and copperheads. Not only do they eat many things considered pests by humans, they typically go about their business late at night, unseen and out of the way. Because they do not dig, burrow, or destroy property, most people never even realize an opossum has been in their yard.
The opossum has several interesting defense mechanisms. First, it will hiss and bare its 50 teeth (more than any other North American mammal). If this doesn’t work, the opossum may then wobble and begin to drool excessively, tactics intended to make potential predators believe that the animal is sick, and therefore, unappetizing. When these defenses fail, it will “play ‘possum,” slipping into an involuntary comatose state resulting from fear, which often causes predators to lose interest in it. While in this state, the opossum may also release a foul-smelling anal fluid that further deters would-be predators.
Opossums have opposable thumbs, and along with primates, are the only mammal with opposable first toes. This trait give opossums the ability to grasp their food and makes them adept climbers. Opossums also have prehensile tails, which help them to balance in trees and grasp bundles of leaves and grass for bedding materials. (They do not hang from their tails, though – this is a misconception). In addition, opossums are smart at finding food and navigating mazes, outperforming dogs, cats, and rats in laboratory tests.
Surviving in the wild is tough business, but clearly the opossum is doing something right. In fact, opossums have been around since the time of dinosaurs; their fossils have been found dating back 70 million years!
While the opossum’s often grizzled appearance may not win people over, hopefully knowing more about this smart, unique animal will help you to see its beauty. The non-releasable opossums I have worked with at AWARE, (like little Ilean, pictured below and at top of page) have been the most docile, sweet animals you could imagine. And they sure are good about eating leftovers! So, the next time you hear people talking smack about an opossum, set ‘em straight, would you?