Why did the chicken cross the road? To show the possum it could be done! This silly joke has been around for years and reflects what many people think of possums; slow-witted, ugly little creatures. But like all members of the animal kingdom, opossums are actually quite interesting and certainly unique.
The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is America’s only marsupial and has adapted quite well to living alongside its human neighbors. In North America, opossum and possum describe the same animal, but in Australia the word “possum” refers to a completely different animal. They range widely throughout most of Central and North America, a range that continues to expand. Virginia opossums are typically found east of the Rocky Mountains since they do not adapt well to extreme cold. During the Great Depression, they were introduced to isolated areas along the West Coast, most likely as a source of food. They can be found in every South Carolina county.
Their size varies widely throughout their range, with larger animals found in the northern areas and much smaller individuals to the south. Incredibly, they can measure from 13 to 37 inches long with the tail adding another 9 to 19 inches. Males can weigh from 2 to 14 pounds and females from 11 ounces to 8 pounds. They are one of a handful of animals with prehensile tails, which are sometimes used like an extra arm. You would not be surprised to learn that they have very small brains.
Virginia opossums are opportunistic feeders. Their diet may consist of small animals, including fish, reptiles, birds, and small mammals; plants; fruits; and grains. Opossums are scavengers and clean up dead animal carcasses. They have very short lifespans, rarely living beyond two years in the wild.
Who hasn’t heard of “playing possum?” This term comes from one of the possum’s most interesting characteristics, playing dead in front of predators, including humans. When possums experience intense fear they fall to the ground, staring blankly ahead and sticking out their tongue. They can remain in this state for several hours until the predator finally gives up and moves on. They appear to have no control over playing dead; the behavior seems to be an involuntary reaction.
Perhaps the most unusual thing about possums is their reproductive habits. The breeding season begins as early as December and continues through October, peaking between February and June. Females may give birth to up to three litters a year. Gestation lasts only 11 to 13 days, with an average litter size of 8 to 9 young, and much larger litters are not uncommon. How can gestation only last two weeks? Like all marsupials, babies are “born” quite small before climbing up into the mother’s pouch, where they latch onto one of her many teats.
The young remain attached in the pouch for two months and, once free from the teat, may remain in the pouch for another two months. The young then climb onto the mother’s back. This entire process takes about four to five months. Opossum young have a very high mortality rate; only one in 10 offspring usually survives to adulthood. The way it gives birth and raises its young isn’t the only interesting point about opossum reproduction. Females actually have two vaginal tracts and two uteri, and males have a forked penis.
Two other interesting facts about possums: with the exception of coral snakes, they are immune to the venom of all native North American snakes. Possums take advantage of this by including snakes in their diet. Also, possums rarely get rabies. Like all marsupials, possums have a lower body temperature compared to other mammals, an environment that is not compatible with the rabies virus. However, opossums are the only known carriers of equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, a muscular/neurological disease in horses. Horses can be exposed to this terrible disease by coming in contact with possum feces and urine.
As I’ve stated before, even the most common and unappreciated animal can be fascinating, and possums are a prime example. The next time you encounter a possum rummaging through your garbage, just know that you are cursing a truly amazing creature.