Over a year ago, I saw a coyote in my backyard and posted Animal Kingdom in the Suburbs. The other night, when I checked on Midnight-the-Outdoor-Cat, something scooted from Midnight’s food dish and hid behind the snowblower. A little face peered at me–it was a baby opossum! Its eyes were black and shiny, its head had a gray stripe, its body was brownish-gray, and its tail was long and bald. It was pretty cute until it opened its mouth, which was full of jagged teeth! Yikes!
Midnight sauntered about unfazed. Lucy barked like crazy inside the house. Cat? Opossum? Let me out!
When I told my son about the nighttime visitor, he said, “Mom! You know they’re rodents, right?” Are they? I needed more info. Presenting…
Top Ten Facts About the Opossum At My Door
(In North America, opossum and possum are used interchangeably and refer to the Virginia opossum, but in Australia, a possum is a different animal.)
- Opossums are marsupials–not rodents–mammals that carry and nurse their young in pouches, and they are the only marsupials in the United Stated and Canada. Their babies are called joeys just like kangaroos. Aww!
- Newborn opossums are the size of bumble bees. They crawl to their mother’s pouch, latch on to one of thirteen teats, and remain attached until ready to leave the pouch in about 11 weeks. Double aww!
- Opossum ancestors can be traced back about 65 million years to similar animals that lived in the time of the dinosaurs. Wow!
- Opossums, unlike other mammals that carry ticks and spread Lyme Disease, gobble up 90 percent of the ticks that attach to them. A single possum consumes 5000 of the parasites per tick season. Good news!
- Its’ long, bald tail is prehensile, which means it can be used like an extra arm. Its’ tail can carry grass and leaves for building nests or grip the sides of trees to provide extra stability while climbing. Baby possums can use their tails to hang from branches upside down, “But it’s a myth that possums sleep this way: Their tails are only strong enough to hold them for a short amount of time.” Cool!
- Opossums are nocturnal and “generally live in burrows and cavities that they find ready-made rather than create themselves. They seek shelter underground, in trees or anywhere in between.” Opportunistic!
- “While possums aren’t totally immune to rabies, finding a specimen with the disease is extremely unlikely. Marsupials like possums have a lower body temperature than the placental mammals that dominate North America—in other words, their bodies don’t provide a suitable environment for the virus.” Whew!
- Opossums are immune to snake venom (the one exception being the coral snake), taking “advantage of this adaptation by chowing down on snakes on a regular basis.” Help yourself!
- Virginia opossums eat almost anything, from bird eggs to acorns, from slugs and frogs to fruit. And cat food!
- You’ve heard of “playing possum?” Since almost any predator can outrun the opossum, whose top speed is 7 miles per hour, the animal’s defense is to play dead. “When the animal experiences intense fear in the face of danger, it seizes up and flops to the ground where it can remain for hours staring blankly ahead and sticking out its tongue. Possums have no control over when they play dead or for how long they do it: The comatose-like state is an involuntary reaction triggered by stress. No acting lessons needed!
Sources: Michele Debczak for Mental Floss.com and Roger Di Silvestro for National Wildlife Federation
4 thoughts on “Top Ten Facts About the Opossum At My Door”
This was great fun learning about your new Joey!
I’m wondering if there’s a story about “Pasquale the Opossum” in there somewhere.
Thanks for the facts about opossums Naomi! They are sadly misunderstood and incredibly helpful to humans in many ways — including as you note by eating ticks.
Branching into my non-fiction world! Good for you! xo