The Much Misunderstood Opossum

The Much Misunderstood Opossum

Like bats, the opossum gets little public appreciation for the services it renders.

Too many humans go about life in total ignorance of the amazing characteristics of the white-faced marsupial.  Scorn rather than gratitude tends to be the little animal’s lot.  Those uneducated to the ways of the opossum level a heaping ration of falsehoods at them.  They are seen as rat-ugly creatures that raid garbage cans and invade homes by tearing holes in homes and hide.  They are feared as rabies carriers.  They suffer an image problem from their association as a preferred food of society’s rural poor and illiterate. To borrow a bit of anthropomorphic “racism,” they are looked down upon as a low-life class of vermin that diminish the value of the neighborhood.

And that is a shame.

Quite the opposite of the ignorant charges leveled at opossums is true.  The more one learns about opossums, the more fascinating they become.

Didelphis virginiana otherwise known as the Virginia opossum is North America’s only marsupial, meaning the female comes equipped with a pouch within which they suckle and carrier their young.  Adults are typically the size of a house cat although some males can grow to nearly three feet in length not counting their prehensile tails.  They also share a trait common only to human and primate mammals.  They have opposable thumbs, toes technically, on their hind feet.

Early Jamestown, Virginia settlers gave them their name, a corruption of the Algonquian word used by the Powhatan tribe meaning “white dog or beast.”  They were characterized as having the face and taste of swine and tail of a rat.

The opossum ranks second only to the duck-billed platypus as the planet’s least evolved mammal.  Research on the skull of a close opossum relative – Mimoperadectes houdei – found in Wyoming suggests the resilient critter’s close relatives lived 55 million years ago and survived the extinction event that rid the Earth of dinosaurs.  It also spawned the notion that North America is the birthplace of marsupials that then spread worldwide prior to the breakup of the ancient landmass into the early formations of today’s continents.  Marsupials inhabiting what is now South America diversified.  North American marsupials vanished around 30 million years ago.  Three million years ago, the Isthmus of Panama reconnected the two continents and saw two species – Didelphis virginiana and D. marsupialis, Mexico’s southern possum – head north.

Opossums have a relatively short life span of two to at best four years in large part due to predation by dogs and other larger animals.  As many as 20 to 50 babies appear after a brief 12 to 14 day gestation period, but only 13 survive.  That is the maximum number of teats in the mother’s pouch.  Adult males are Jacks.  Adult females are Jills.  Young opossums are Joeys like their Australian kangaroo cousins.  A gathering is a “passel of possums.”

The claim that they rip passageways into homes and sheds is a total fabrication.  Their soft fleshed paws simply cannot do major demolition.  That’s the work of other creatures.  Opossum’s occupy hides for daylight and cold weather hours created by others.  Night is the time they venture out to seek nutrition.

Among the more intriguing characteristics of opossums is their resistance to rabies.  While all mammals are capable of contracting rabies, scientists believe it’s eight times less likely that opossums transmit rabies than feral dogs.  They are not sure but believe the opossum’s lower body temperature (94-96oF) than human’s (97.6 -99.6 oF) or dogs (101-102.5 oF) is hostile to the virus’ survival.

Pit vipers – rattlesnakes, cottonmouth water moccasins, etc. – hold no fear in opossums.  The furry animals are largely immune to their venom.

Opossum are a true boon to gardeners and homeowners plagued by insect or rodent infestations.  Their wide-ranging diet and innate ability to hone in on the presence of a delectable morsel makes them ideal at pest control.  Slugs, snails, beetles, and insects of every stripe are on their menu.  They also eat frogs, mice, birds, and eggs.  Toss in cat and dog food as well as table scraps and the nocturnal animals are all good with the world.  They are also known to run off and kill roaches and rats they consider competitors for food.  Opossums yield only to humans the ability to remember where food is stashed or to negotiate their way through a maze.  Rabbits, rats, cats, and dogs stand no chance pitted against an opossum.

Opossums are called Nature’s most efficient sanitation engineers because they consume carrion including their skeletons.  They need the extra calcium from discarded bones to maintain their own bone strength.  Without it they are rendered crippled with a variation of brittle bone disease.

Threats are parried by a variety of defensive strategies.  They run away, growl, belch, urinate, and/or defecate.  If all else fails, they deter predators from considering them potential tasty meals by their ability to “play possum.” They pretend quite realistically that they’re dead.  They roll over, stiffen their bodies, close or give a dead man stare with their eyes.  They lie there with their teeth bared and saliva foaming around their mouth and top their performance off with a foul smelling fluid secreted from their anal glands.  They can hold that lifeless pose for up to four hours.

Opossums last got the universal adulation their species deserves when Walt Kelly debuted his cartoon character “Pogo” in 1948.  The little possum delighted readers with his simple, earthy wisdom and wit for five decades.

“Pogo” by Walt Kelly

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