Two tricks has a ‘possum
When danger is near.
To climb to a treetop
Or hiss full of fear.
But when these two fail
He tries this instead,
Rolls up like a ball
And pretends he is dead.
From the book “The Opossums” by Anne LaBastille
Whether you utilize the available “O” or drop it altogether, the Virginia Opossum is something to be reckoned with. Here in the south, the O tends to be silent… unless you are driving down a country road at night and have to slam your breaks to keep from hitting one, then the “O” is handy as you holler “Oh Possum! Oh Possum!” at your windshield while trying to avoid making it a pavement possum. However, technically speaking, the only true Possums are found in Australia and New Guinea… and North America is home to the Opossum.
Jack & Jill went up the hill… to make a passel of possums?
Boy ‘possums are called Jacks, and girl ‘possums are called Jills. Baby ‘possums are called Joeys (just like their kangaroo cousins) and a pack of possums, is actually called a passel of ‘possums.
There. Now that the name game is out of the way, let’s talk about how amazing these little nocturnal marsupials really are. First of all, they are North America’s only marsupial – a mammal that rears it’s young in a specially designed pouch… a ‘possum pouch as it were.
Possums have the quickest gestation period of any mammal. Once fertilized (by Jack’s bifurcated penis – yes, there is one penis with two ends – imagine Jill the socket, and Jack the two-pronged plug) Jill only waits 12 ½ days before giving birth to up to 25 little Joeys! These petite possums are only the size of a honey bee when they emerge from Mom’s birth canal, and not completely developed. They use what they do have, sharp claws and an innate passion to climb away from gravity, to get into the pouch and attach themselves to a nipple. Jill only has 13 nipples (or teets) available, so the first 13 attached get to keep their place – and keep their lives. (An average ‘possum litter produces around 6 – 8 offspring after it’s all said and done.)
Once a tiny Joey is attached to the teet, the teet swells and the little mouth contracts, thus holding on for dear life. If a Joey is removed from the teet, the mouth rips and the little fella will die. Joeys spend 60 days continuously attached inside the pouch, then they emerge and cling to their Mother’s back while she goes on about her possum prowls. The Joeys aren’t completely weaned for about 100 days (give or take) so during this time they spend their days inside and outside of the pouch at will.
‘Possums turn a cold shoulder to most diseases – and snake venom!
One of the most widely held myths about ‘possums is that they spread diseases. This is untrue. In actuality, a person is more likely to contract an illness from their house-pets than from an opossum. In fact, these little nocturnal omnivores do a great job at halting the spread of disease. They hold their core body temperature at around 96 degrees, whereas most mammals range from 98 – 102 degrees on average. This tiny little detail is extremely beneficial to the ‘possum, making it a very unfit environment for most disease processes – including (but not limited to) rabies, parvovirus, distemper and some forms of hepatitis. In fact, opossums are the only mammals in the world that have a natural resistance to rabies.
This adaptation is perfect for the job they do. ‘Possums are omnivores – and I mean, EVERYTHING-ivores – and if your appetite is similar to that of a garbage disposal, it is very helpful if you have a resistance to naturally occurring diseases. The daring diet of a ‘possum includes plants, nuts, berries, worms, snails, slugs, cockroaches, other insects, rotting vegetable matter, carrion (rotting animal matter), eggs, small birds, rats, mice, cat food, dog food, stale people-food, snakes and etcetera and etcetera.
The fact that they eat dead animals plays a big part in the need to be disease resistant… most of the dead animals we see these days is in the form of roadkill. However, in nature, diseases, not automobiles, do most of the killing.
Another terrific ‘possum adaptation is their immunity to snake venom. They have a special protein that knocks snake venom down to the size of a bee sting. This fact is one of the many great reasons for letting them alone, and allowing them to live on your property line if they so desire. They will kill and eat snakes, and have no problems if they get bitten by rattle snakes, cotton mouths, copper heads and even Asiatic cobras – not that there are too many cobras in the Southern United States, but if there were, your little backyard ‘possum neighbor would gladly help keep you protected from them.
Defense: Playing ‘possum helps, but so does 50 teeth, a prehensile tail & foot thumbs
It is also very handy that ‘possums have more teeth than any other land mammal. These are helpful for breaking and eating bones of dead animals to satisfy their body’s high demand for calcium and phosphorus. These 50 pointy teeth are also a great deterrent against predators – even coyotes tend to back away when the hissing, drooling, eight-pound ‘possum shows off his chompers. (Although it is worth noting that although they certainly can, a ‘possum’s first instinct is to run away and hide, rather than bite.)
In fact, ‘possums are very shy and solitary by nature – you might even call them peaceful pacifists due to their extreme desire to avoid confrontation. Their first instinct if they feel threatened is to disappear up a tree. ‘Possums are very agile climbers and utilize their prehensile tail as a 5th appendage – giving them a longer reach and helping them into the safety of a tree’s branches with a quickness. Juvenile ‘possums will occasionally hang upside down by their tail’s grip, for fun or an alternative view, but adults are too heavy (up to 13 lbs!) to comfortably hang upside down for very long. The tail is more useful for climbing, and has even been known to help carry bundles of plants back to a safe place for consuming.
The other helpful climbing tool a ‘possum claims is opposable thumbs… on his hind feet! These little foot-thumbs act just like our thumbs do, they have terrific grip-tion and make climbing a breeze.
If showing off their shiny teeth or scurrying up a tree doesn’t make a predator back away, they will absolutely resort to an all-out lie. Bluffing ‘possums will very dramatically try to convince you they have just fallen over dead – rendering themselves useless as a hot, fresh dinner item. Not only do they lay dead still while playing ‘possum, they will often release their bowels and discharge a green-liquidish-goo from their anal sacs that will convince your nose they have died as well.
In my book, this earns ‘possums two opposable thumbs up for a most unique and interesting method for keeping scary bad guys away from them!
‘Possum problems & prevention
Please note that in the above paragraphs concerning a ‘possum’s defense options, NONE of them include chasing down a human, or a cat, or a dog and biting them or eating them or clawing their eyes out. Opossums are very cautious, private, shy and solitary. About the only problematic issue you may face with a ‘possum that wanders through your yard, is that they may find themselves a way into your garbage can or your pet’s food dish.
These issues are easy to avoid by having a secure lid on the trash and taking your pet’s food up at night. These simple solutions will immediately put an end to your ‘possum problem.
So, what does one do when they spot an opossum in the wild?
Nothing. Just leave him to his ‘possum pursuits. None of which will harm yourself, your yard or your home.
Observe. Watch his cautious movements and extreme climbing ability. Check out the paper-thin ears that act like little satellite dishes to help him steer clear of predators – or to hone in on a tasty treat of his own.
Note that his coat has two layers, the longer grey-ish hairs on top are cushioned with a warm downy fur underneath that helps keep him from catching a chill in the rain or the dewy grass.
See if you can spot his foot-thumbs and most definitely watch how he uses his tail for balance and for gripping. Notice his beedy little eyes… chances are you won’t see an iris at all, ‘possums are all pupil all the time – a great adaptation for working in low-light conditions.
Grab a camera and take a photo of one of the cutest faces in the nocturnal world.
And, of course, what one should NOT do when they spot an opossum in the wild
Do not touch it.
Do not harm or harass it – or poke it with brooms or sticks or hoes.
Do not try to pick it up and do not try to take it home to be a miserable pet in a cage.
Do not let your dogs tear it to pieces.
Do not poison it with rotenticides – if you do this you will absolutely run the risk of also poisoning your own pets & animals and/or the hawks, owls, foxes, raccoons and other wild things that will eventually eat the ‘possum after he waddles off and dies… and then the same cycle will repeat itself again and again until many things are dead from the poisoned ‘possum.
- Be sure to watch the video above: The Virginia Opossum – Mini Documentary
To learn more about opossums, enjoy these references:
- The Opossum Society
- What Are Opossums (Bittel Me This)
- 10 things you didn’t know about opossums (Mother Nature Network)
- Planet Possum
- Opossum Facts (Huffington Post)
- National Geographic – Opossum
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