Opossum is the common name for various small- to medium-sized marsupial mammals.
There are more than 60 different species of opossum.
The opossum is the only species of marsupial (mammals with a pouch in which they carry their young) that is found outside of Australia an it’s surrounding islands.
Although many refer to opossums as “possums“, the term “possum” technically refers to a classification of marsupials living in Australia, New Guinea and Sulawesi.
While opossums prefer deciduous woodlands with nearby sources of water – like streams or swamps – they are extremely adaptable and succeed in a variety of habitats and climates.
Opossums have a very short lifespan, usually three years or less in the wild, where they have to contend with predators and cars. In captivity, they can live twice as long.
They are characterized by a long, naked tail; a long, pointed snout; opposable thumbs in the hands and feet; and ears that are naked.
Opossums range in size from that of a small mouse to the size of a large housecat.
Usually they have 53 to 90 centimeters (21 to 35 inches) in length (including tail) and weigh between 1.8 and 6.8 kilograms (4 and 15 pounds).
Their body is covered with white-grayish fur. In rare occasions it can be black, brown or albino colored.
Opossums are solitary animals, and except during breeding season or a female with her young, they are rarely seen together.
They are not territorial. They move constantly and search for food on different locations.
Opossums are generally nocturnal, foraging throughout the night. But it is not at all unusual to see an opossum out during the daytime, especially during cold weather.
Opossum has neither good eyesight nor strong hearing power. However, it has a sharp sense of smell, which guides in its food-hunting venture.
Opossums are omnivores, so they eat a wide range of plants and animals. Their normal diet consists of carrion, rodents, insects, snails, slugs, birds, eggs, frogs, plants, fruits and grains. They also eat human food, table scraps, dog food and cat food. If it’s edible and accessible, the opossum will eat it.
Opossums are excellent tree climbers and spend much of their time aloft. They are aided in this by sharp claws, which dig into bark, and by a long prehensile (gripping) tail that can be used as an extra limb. Opossums nest in tree holes or in dens made by other animals.
Between the months of January and October, opossums breed and give birth to up to two litters of 4-8 young – or joeys – each. The gestation period of a possum is about 13 days, after which time the joeys are born and must immediately claim one of 13 nipples inside the mother’s pouch. Joeys remain inside the pouch for about 50 days, after which time they begin to exit the pouch and spend time on their mother’s back. After about 100 days, young opossums split from their mothers to find their own home ranges.
When threatened or harmed, they will “play possum“, mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. This physiological response is involuntary (like fainting), rather than a conscious act. They will typically regain consciousness in 40 minutes to 4 hours.
Opossums have a remarkably robust immune system, and show partial or total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and other pit vipers. Opossums are about eight times less likely to carry rabies than wild dogs, and about one in eight hundred opossums is infected with this virus.
Opossums have 50 teeth, more than any North American mammal.
Male opossums are called jacks, and females are called jills. The young are referred to as joeys, just like their Australian cousins. A group of opossums is called a passel.
It was Captain John Smith who used the term opossum for the first time in 1608. The name was adapted from the Native American Algonquin term ‘apasum’, which mean white animal.
The Virginia opossum was once widely hunted and consumed in the United States. Sweet potatoes were eaten together with the possum in America’s southern area. South Carolina cuisine includes opossum eating.
In Dominica, Grenada, Trinidad and St. Lucia the common opossum or manicou is popular and can only be hunted during certain times of the year owing to overhunting. The meat is traditionally prepared by smoking, then stewing.
In northern/central Mexico, opossums are known as “tlacuache” or “tlacuatzin”. Their tails are eaten as a folk remedy to improve fertility.
Opossum pelts have long been part of the fur trade.