The Virginia opossum is North America's only marsupial. A marsupial
is an animal with a pouch, like a kangaroo or a koala. The opossum
has been around for at least 70 million years and is one of Earth's
oldest surviving mammals!
opossum is about the size of a large house cat. It has a triangular
head and a long pointed nose. It has grayish fur everywhere but
on its ears, feet and tail. Its tail is prehensile. A prehensile
tail is adapted for grasping and wrapping around things like tree
limbs. The opossum can hang from its tail for a short time. Some
people think opossums hang from their tails and sleep. They don't.
Their tails aren't strong enough to hold them for that long!
opossum has opposable hallux. A hallux is like a thumb. The opossum's
"thumbs" are on its rear feet. The hallux helps it grasp
branches when it climbs.
opossum doesn't hibernate in the winter. It will often hole up during
very cold weather because it runs the risk of getting frostbite
on its hairless ears, tail and toes.
The Virginia opossum can be found in most of the United States east
of the Rocky Mountains and on the West Coast. It is also found in
Mexico, Central America and in British Columbia, Canada.
The Virginia opossum lives in a wide-variety of habitats including
deciduous forests, open woods and farmland. It tends to prefer wet
areas like marshes, swamps and streams.
The Virginia opossum is nocturnal and uses its keen sense of smell
to locate food. It is omnivorous and eats just about anything, including
lots of different plants and animals like fruits, insects, and other
small animals. Sometimes, it eats garbage and carrion. Carrion is
dead animals. Because so much carrion is roadkill, opossums are
often killed by cars while looking for food on roadways.
An Virginia opossum female may have as many as 25 babies, but she
usually will have between seven to eight. The reason opossums have
so many babies to insure that some of them survive. Like most marsupials,
opossums are very small when they are born - about the size of a
babies climb up the mother's fur and into her pouch where they find
a teat. Some babies will not find their way to the pouch and will
die. If they make it to the pouch, only babies who find one of the
thirteen teats will survive. They will stay in the pouch and suckle
for 55-60 days. Then they will move out of the pouch and spend another
four to six weeks on their mother's back. In some parts of their
range, females will have three litters a year.
The Virginia opossum has many behavioral adaptations it uses to
survive. When threatened, it will exhibit behaviors like running,
growling, belching, urinating and even defecating. Sometimes it
will "play 'possum." and roll over, become stiff, drool,
and its breathing will become slow and shallow. This coma-like state
can last up to four hours Some predators will think the opossum
is dead and go away!
name 'opossum' was first used in western culture by Captain John
Smith in 1608. It comes from the Algonquin name 'apasum', which
means 'white animal.'