Apr 1, 2009

Virginia Opossum

They are “living fossils,” having survived relatively unchanged for at least 70 million years when dinosaurs also roamed the planet.  They are the only living marsupials in North America.  The first known usage of their name occurred in 1610 literature for Jamestown, Virginia.  “There are…Apossouns, in shape like pigges.”  The word opossum comes from the Algonquian Indian language meaning “white animal.”


Opossums are solitary nocturnal animals that are as common in the suburbs as they are in rural areas.  About the size of a housecat, they have a naked prehensile (grasping) tail, naked ears and opposable “thumbs” on their rear feet.  When they hiss or growl, they show their 50 sharp teeth.  No other land mammal has so many teeth.  They have very poor eyesight but a keen sense of hearing to help avoid predators, and an even keener sense of smell to aid in finding food.


They seem to eat anything.  Favorite foods include insects, snails, rodents, eggs, snakes, frogs, crayfish, fruit, berries, and carrion.  While foraging for food they travel an erratic path, changing directions every few steps and constantly poking at objects on the ground, testing everything as a possible food source.


Opossums are prolific breeders.  Mating season extends from January to July, with 2 litters produced annually.  After a gestation period of only about 12 days, more than a dozen honeybee-sized young are produced.  The blind embryo-like babies immediately crawl unaided into the mother’s abdominal pouch where they attach themselves to one of her 13 nipples.  Those that do not find a nipple soon perish.  Shortly after a baby begins to nurse, the nipple swells and completely fills its mouth so tightly that the baby becomes firmly attached to the mother. It will stay attached for the next 2 months.  As they grow and can no longer fit in the pouch, they will then clutch the mother’s fur and ride on her back as she hunts for food.  The young are independent and on their own at 3 to 4 months.


An injured or threatened opossum will pretend it is dead or “play possum.”  It will go into a near coma and its breathing will become almost undetectable.  It lies on its side with mouth and eyes partially open, tongue hanging out, and often emits a greenish fluid from its anus with an odor that is putrid to most predators.  When danger passes it will get up and meander away.


Opossums have a relatively short lifespan, especially for their size and metabolic rate.  Their average lifespan in the wild is only about 2 years.  They are preyed on by many species of animals, including coyotes, foxes, large hawks and owls.  As scavengers, they frequently hunt along highways for garbage and road kill where they frequently fall victim to that ultimate predator, the automobile.


Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at www.woodlandhabitat.com or gaylepille@yahoo.com


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