North American opossum
The Virginia opossum is the only marsupial found in North America north of Mexico. In the United States, it is typically referred to simply as a possum. It is familiar to many North Americans as it is often seen near towns, rummaging through garbage cans, or as roadkill. They are about the same size as a large house cat, having a triangular head with a long pointed nose. The fur is grayish and is everywhere except its ears, tail and feet. Amongst their fur are long white-tipped guard hairs. The fur color may differ according to the population’s range. Their ears are large and delicate and the tail is prehensile, adapted for gripping and wrapping around tree limbs.
Virginia opossums live in most parts of the United States that are east of the Rocky Mountains, and along the west coast from British Columbia in Canada and to Baja California. It is also found in Mexico and Central America. The animal lives in a wide range of habitats, including open woods, deciduous forests, and farmland. It prefers wet areas like swamps, marshes and streams.
Habits and lifestyle
Virginia opossums are nocturnal, solitary and terrestrial. They are very good climbers and may establish their dens in trees. They begin their nightly activities at dusk and are active until dawn. They don’t hibernate but do reduce activity during the coldest seasons. Denning sites vary and may include buildings, abandoned burrows and hollow trees. Virginia opossums change their denning sites often. They only remain in one den for a long period when weaning young.
Diet and nutrition
Virginia opossums are omnivorous and will eat almost anything, including many different plants such as fruits, and small animals and insects. Sometimes they will eat garbage and carrion.
Preys: insects, snails, earthworms, snakes, mice
Predators: owls, coyotes, red foxes, raccoons, bobcats, domestic dogs, large snakes
These opossums are polygynous, which means that one male mates with multiple females. Breeding is typically from December to August. The brief gestation period is 12 to 13 days and up to 25 young may be produced in each litter. However, the total number that can be raised is determined by how many teats (normally 13) are in the pouch. The average number of young is typically 7 or 8. On entering the pouch, each baby must find a nipple and attach itself or it will die. The pouch young remain firmly attached to a nipple for their first 50 to 55 days. Around 85 days old they begin eating solid food and are weaned completely between 93 and 105 days. They reach sexual maturity within their first year of life, at about 6 months for females and 8 for males.
There are no major threats to this species. In some areas they can be trapped or hunted by humans but the main threat from humans is collision with motor vehicles.
The IUCN Red List and other sources do not provide the Virginia opossum total population size, but this animal is common and widespread throughout its known range. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are increasing.
Fun facts for kids
- Virginia opossums deal with extreme heat by cooling themselves down by spreading their saliva.
- They have a reputation as being very slow and clumsy. But they can show directional turns to avoid being captured when pursued. They can also swim or climb to escape from danger.
- The name “opossum” was used for the first time in western culture in 1608 by Captain John Smith. It is from the Algonquin word “apasum”, meaning “white animal.”
- When startled or frightened, opossums can pretend to be dead (or “play possum”). An individual will curl up with its mouth open, tongue hanging out, and it looks dead. Their breathing even slows down for a few minutes or up to several hours. They will tolerate being poked or prodded and even bitten by an animal without reacting. This play can enable the opossum to escape predation, as most predators do not eat carrion.
- Opossums have the greatest number of teeth of any land mammal: fifty of them, razor sharp.