What are opossums?

Opossums are marsupial creatures belonging to the Didelphimorphia order. Marsupial creatures refer to pouched mammals. The offspring of marsupial creatures are born underdeveloped and weak, they then reside in a pouch on the mother’s stomach, where they complete their development process and stay there till they are strong enough to venture out. An animal with two wombs is known as a Didelphidae. 

Over 100 different opossum species are present, varying in sizes. Some opossums are so small, that they can fit in your pocket! This species is called pygmy possum whereas, some opossums are the size of domesticated cats. The most commonly known opossum specie is the Virginia opossum.

Opossums generally belong to the gray family but there are a few that come in browns or even in the color white. They have long pointed snouts, narrow braincase and have hands, feet, and tails that are nearly hair-less. The size of an opossum’s tail is 1/3 of its whole body length. They have a ‘feet flat on the ground’ stance, also known as the plantigrade stance. their fur only consists or ‘awn’ hair. The female opossums have a pouch on their stomachs (where baby opossums live for 3 months after birth). somebody parts, like their tail and some parts of the feet, have bear scutes. Their stomach has a small cecum and like many other marsupials, a forked penis with twin glands is also a physical characteristic of a male opossum. It has five sharp-clawed toes on each front foot and the innermost toe on each hind foot is clawless and opposable, which helps grasp branches. Moreover, by mammalian standards, an opossum has an unusually full jaw, with small incisors, large canines, and tricuspid molars adding up to 50 teeth (in a fully grown opossum). Other than that, the most recognizable feature of an opossum is its pair of opaque eyes. even though opossums do have whites and irises, due to their extremely large and dilated pupils they appear almost completely black. however, though, this feature has proved to be helpful to them as it helps the nocturnal (active at night) animals see better at night.

The most commonly known opossum may be the Virginia opossum however, the most interesting or even unusual for some might be the water opossum called the ‘yapok’, as it is the only semi-aquatic marsupial. This particular specie has webbed hindlimbs which give them an advantage underwater when hunting for food.

These creatures are often thought of as dumb and dirty but in reality, these are smart and clean creatures that are much more beneficial to humans compared to any other woodland animal than you may think.

Opossum history and evolution

The name opossum was first used in 1608 in the western culture by captain john smith. In the middle of the 17th century a never before seen, the weird creature was caught and brought in for study and observation to the royal society in London. At the time it was believed to be of word proportions and was described as a cross between a fox and an ape by those who saw it. The unusual animal turned out to be an opossum. The word opossum comes Algonquin name “aposoum” which translates to ‘white dog’ or ‘white beast’, but don’t worry, opossums aren’t nearly as dangerous as the nomenclature suggests.

The oldest opossum fossils are roughly almost 20 million years old (early Miocene in age) and the last common ancestor of all opossums dates back to 23 million years.  Metatherian species such as Alphadon, Peradectes, Herpetotherium, and Pucadelphys, (now extinct) were considered to be early opossums on the basis of plesiomorphies but are now recognized to be only distantly related to modern opossums.

In the late Miocene, opossums started to diversify but before that, they were only minor components of the South American mammal fauna.

Where do opossums live?

Opossums are found all over the south, north, and central America. The only marsupial creature found in the united states and Canada is the Virginia opossum. 

 Forests or swamps that get an ample amount of rain are generally the ideal locations for opossums. However, due to their extremely adaptable habits, they can live among humans in both, country and urban areas.

Opossums don’t put a lot of effort into building their own nests and typically reside in hollow logs, trees and sometimes dens made by other animals when they are in the forest or at the swamp and are commonly found in sheds, barns and under houses when they live near or in human-populated areas. As nocturnal animals, whether they are below ground or above,  opossums prefer to stay in dark and secure places.

What do possums eat?

Opossums are essentially omnivores however different species vary in the amount of meat and or the vegetation they ingest. The caluromyinae (a subfamily of the opossum species) is mostly vegetarian whereas the lutrine and patagorian opossum’s diet consists of mostly other animals

The diet of an opossum usually consists of a wide range of plants, fruits, seeds, insects like cockroaches and bugs, small reptiles like lizards, bird eggs, earthworms, and snails. One of the opossum specie is even skilled enough to subdue scorpions. The water opossum-the yapok also eats freshwater fish like the crawfish or mollusks.

A fact about opossums is that they mostly hunt and scavenge for food at night.

Are opossums dangerous?

Opossums are mostly docile and harmless creatures that are rarely dangerous. Though they do not attack, if they feel threatened they will bite. Biting, scratching and raising their pitch are some of the ways they deal with the threat.

Ticks, flea and mite infestations are often associated with opossum nesting areas so, therefore, even though they aren’t quite that dangerous, they can definitely be a nuisance. 

Opossums can carry different diseases like tuberculosis, tularaemia, toxoplasmosis and spotted fever. 

Do opossums self-groom?

opossums are misunderstood to be unsanitary and dirty animals but this commonly believed fact is completely false. Opossums take cleanliness very seriously and just like house cats use their tongue and paws thoroughly and quite frequently clean themselves. Due to them lacking sweat glands, they have a fairly low body temperature which somewhat makes them odorless (when they aren’t playing dead)

Can you keep opossums as pets?

Firstly, in some states, it is straight-up illegal to keep wild animals as pets. It’s advised to release an opossum onto the wild (especially if it’s a fully-grown opossum) because they do not bode well in captivity. And keeping them as pets can prove to be quite expensive.

However, in recent years the short-tailed opossum is growing in popularity as an exotic pet. So if you do decide to keep them as pets there are a few things you should know

  • Since they are animals that like to stay clean and prefer to find designated areas to urinate and defecate, you can train your opossum to use a litter box.
  • They are solitary animals, so if you have other pets, know that the opossum might not get along with them.
  • This may come as a surprise, but wild opossums can be easily trained and tamed
  • Cleanliness should not be an issue since opossums themselves are self-grooming animals and apart from that, most opossums love water, so bathing them (in mildly hot water) is also an open option.

Qualities of an opossum

  • Low chances of rabies

Since opossums have a low body temperature, it is very unlikely for the virus to thrive in them.

  • Immunity to snake venom

When an opossum sees a snake, unlike most other animals, it does not feel threatened, in fact, it might even see it as a meal. With the exception of a coral snake, an opossum is immune to the venom of nearly every other type of snake found in the areas they live in. due to this immunity snakes are gobbled down by opossums on daily bases.

  • They decrease the spread of Lyme disease

Opossums are estimated to eat 90% of the ticks that latch onto them, so unlike other mammals, they are less likely to spread Lyme disease. Opossums consume up to 5000 ticks a year.

  • They have exceptionally good memories

Opossums have sharp memories, especially when it comes to food. Different experiments have proved to researchers that compared to rats, dogs, and cats; opossums have a better recollection of which path led to better treats. And if they smell something toxic or bad, it is expected that they remember it up to a year.

  • They have a ‘fifth hand’

An opossum is one of the few animals with a prehensile tail. This means that their tail is sometimes regarded as their ‘fifth hand’ aiding them in climbing, by grabbing sides of trees, giving them extra balance and grabbing material like grass leaves and sticks to carry to their nesting area. Opossums, especially baby opossums sometimes even use their tails to hang upside down. however, the myth that they sleep while hanging from their tails, is untrue as their tails can only provide enough strength to hang on for a short amount of time.

Opossum's prehensile tail
Opossum’s prehensile tail

What is meant by the term “playing possum”?

the most famous characteristic of an opossum is its ability to play dead. when feeling threatened, an opossum will fall down to its side and sometimes close its eyes or stare fixedly into space and roll out its tongue to appear dead. The most interesting part is its ability to release a putrid smell from its anus on demand which makes the whole playing dead act seem much more real. This act is called ‘playing possum’ because this is opossums mimicking possums. However, unlike possums that have no control and involuntarily plop down due to fear, opossums have total control over it. This state can last up to 4 hours.

Reproduction and lifespan

Common among marsupials, the female opossum has 2 vaginal tracts (bifurcated vagina) and a divided uterus (one is the actual uterus inside the body and one is the marsupium (the pouch) and the males a have bifurcated penis (forked). The estrous cycle of an opossum is 28 days and the gestation period like other small marsupials is 12 to 14 days. After birth, the offspring resides in the pouch for 3 months for further development. Opossums can give birth to up to two litters in a year with up to 13 babies in each. 

The life span of an opossum in 1 to 2 years in the wild and up to 4 or more years in captivity which is unusual for a mammal as big as them compared to others. 

Opossums vs possums

Opossums and possums are often misunderstood and thought of as the same. And while some cases it might be true as ‘possum’ is also a synonym for opossums, possums are actually a different species. the reason they are both mistaken for each other is for some of their common attributes such as both being nocturnal and omnivores and both have the ability to play dead while threatened. 

Possums are native to Australia whereas opossums are native to the south, central and north America.

Cute Australian Possum
Australian Possum

They both have different marsupial names. And opossum belongs to the Didelphimorphia order and a possum belongs to the Phalangeriformes order.

A possum has a round body face, thick fur and is golden in color with a thick and voluminous tail whereas opossums have sharp features, have intense black eyes, and a pointed face and are generally gray. 

Are opossums actually eco-friendly?

Now while this may seem like an exaggeration, it is actually true. Despite them being a nuisance to have to hang around the house, opossums due to their eating habits are an excellent way of keeping your insect and rodent dilemma under control. They eat everything, from roadkill, ticks, roaches, mites, bugs, lizards and because of their immunity to venom, even snakes! They might just be your one-way ticket to a cleaner neighborhood and roadkill free roads. 

Infestation signs

As opossums have a diverse taste in food, the ones living in human-populated areas are often found digging up trash, scavenging for leftover food and insects. If you think your house may be infested, the first place you should look is in the trash and around it, as most of the time they like to near their food source. Digging for bugs and grubs’ results in lawn damage which is also an easy way to find out whether or not your house is infested. 

Prevention tips against opossums

Exclusions methods such as covering up all and every possible entry route into the structure be it a house, apartment or your office, with metal mesh and flashing, are effective in not only preventing opossums but also other rodents like rats and mice, even smaller reptiles like lizards from entering and infesting your house. Small efforts like not leaving the food uncovered out in the open on the counter or table or covering your trash cans can be highly effective as uncovered trash and food is usually what attracts not only opossums but other rodents and insects too. 

How to get rid of opossums?

If you live in an area where opossums are believed to popular, it is important for you to take precautionary steps. However, sometimes despite your best efforts, your house can become infested. The task of getting rid of them is challenging but not impossible. The following are a few ways you can get rid of your opossum problem;

  • Opossums have not yet adapted to the ‘running away from traps’ lifestyle like rats and mice just yet, so it’s pretty easy to catch them. Just put a large box or trap in their route of travel and you’ll have one in soon enough.
  • Use bait food to lure them out such as fruit, raw chicken, etc
  • Contact your local pest management professional for help

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Dusty Showers has been in the urban nuisance wildlife and pest control field since 1993. Taught by Garon Fyffe, a pioneer in humane nuisance wildlife management, Dusty has a passion for finding humane solutions to human & wildlife conflicts. Dusty was the only individual invited by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission in the lat 1990's to help write legislation for legal protection of Florida bats. With an instinct for solving wildlife, Dusty found pest control to be an easy "add-on interest". Dusty started his first business "Animal Instincts Wildlife & Pest Management" in the Tampa Bay, Florida area in 1995. Eventually selling Animal Instincts in 2002, Dusty went on to start Creepy Creatures Termite and Pest Control in 2009, which he still owns and operates today in Palm Harbor, Florida.

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