Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Oh, Possums are Opossums

Opossums are marsupials, which means they have no placenta- the babies develop in the mother's pouch.  The opossum, or possum, is the only marsupial in the Americas and Canada.  Other marsupials such as the kangaroo and wombat are found in Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania. 


There are 60 different species of opossum, ranging in size from mouse to house cat.  The Virginia, or common opossum, is the most prevalent and is house cat size. 

Possum Procreation

Like other marsupials, the opossum has a dual, or bifurcated, genital arrangement.  The female's vagina has two tunnels, one leads to the uterus, the other to waste storage.  The male has a penis with two prongs that fit neatly into the female's opening.

After fertilization, the male's role in the relationship is concluded.  Mother nests in tree holes or dens made by other animals, showing a decided preference for dark private places.

After a gestation of 12-14 days, the babies are born and immediately crawl into the mother's pouch.  Litters of twenty are not uncommon but most of the youngsters don't survive to even reach the pouch.  At birth, the young are the size of honeybees.  They remain inside the pouch for 2-3 months feeding from the conveniently located teats.  The babies begin to spend more time out of the pouch at 4-5 months of age, often riding on mother's back.  At this point, they are 7- 9 inches long and weigh 10-16 ounces. 

The female typically has two litters per year.

Assorted Possum Facts 

- lifespan 2-4 years
- diet:  carrion, grass, nuts, fruit, eggs, vegetables, insects, mice, birds, worms, snakes
- predators:  dogs, cats, foxes, bobcats, owls
- nocturnal
- fossil remains from 70 million years ago look like possums of today
- non territorial/nomadic
- very resistant to rabies and snake venom
- coat color ranges from white to black
- they have thumbs on their hind feet
- the prehensile tail is used as an additional limb for climbing and carrying things such as leaves for the nest

The solitary possum is a quiet creature but occasionaly will hiss when annoyed.  The well known playing possum reaction is involuntary.  When the possum is threatened it swoons, falls on its side, eyes blank and staring or closed, the anal glands release some fluid that smells like death,  the jaws fall open and the tongue hangs out.  Predators are befuddled by this show of sudden death and usually depart.  The opossum awakens minutes or hours later and goes on about its business.

Some folks eat possum, typically substituting the meat in recipes calling for rabbit or chicken. No, it doesn't taste like chicken but could be categorized as the other white meat.  Opossum oil (possum grease) is high in essential fatty acids and has been used as a chest rub or mixed with herbs as an arthritis salve.



  1. Those thumbs on their hind feet sound interesting!

  2. I never thought of opossums as interesting creatures, but this is something I enjoyed reading. I had no idea that they behaved in such a way when threatened, but then again, I've only seen them from a distant or already dead on the side of the road!

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. I've only seen them on rare occasions. I don't know how common they are in my area.

  4. Did you see the video of the snowboarding opossum?