I have two distinct memories of an opossum. One is while living in Trumbull when I let our golden retriever, Bosco, out one night. All of a sudden he was standing over an animal that was lying on its side with its tongue out. At first I thought it was dead, but quickly realized it was just “playing possum”. I immediately brought Bosco back into the house and soon saw the opossum scurry away.
The other memory is of the Native American story told by Joseph Bruchac, How Grandmother Spider Stole the Sun. It tells of what happens to the fox and possum when they try to carry the sun. This is a story of the Creek (Muskogee) people of Oklahoma. It was reprinted as a Project Learning Tree activity “Tale of the Sun” on diversity. (See resources below.)
Once again we have an amazing animal that has adapted in order to be able to survive even in very urban environments. The Native American name “Aposoum or Apasum” means white animal. Its scientific name Didelphis means double womb, in reference to the pouch as a secondary place of development, virginianus refers to the state of Virginia where it was first observed by English colonists.
As the Native American tale tells you the opossum has a naked tail. This hairless tail is prehensile, capable of grasping, and used for grasping branches, balancing , and unlike the beaver, it can even be used for carrying nesting material. Unlike popular belief they do not normally use their tail to hang upside down from a branch.
There are about different species of opossums, but only the Virginia opossum is found in North America. It is also the only “marsupial”, pouched animal, found in North America. Perhaps more familiar marsupials are kangaroos and koalas. The opossum has 50 teeth, more than any land mammal, and it has the shortest gestation period. Thirteen days after mating it will give birth to really, really small, sightless, hairless, tailless babies. These babies climb up the mama into her pouch. When born they are less than 1/2 inch long and 1/200 of an ounce. One reference said you could put 20 babies into a teaspoon. They will remain and develop in the pouch for about 60 days and then climb out and ride on their mother’s back and remain there 80-100 days. They only live 1-2 years.
Opossums are the only non-primate (primates include apes, gorillas, humans) with an opposable thumb. The opposable thumb gives it the ability to grasp things. All five elongated toes on their front and rear feet have claws to aid in climbing except for the inside toe or “thumb” on the hind feet.
Known as “opportunistic omnivores” or “nature’s sanitation engineers” they eat just about anything – snails, slugs, insects, fruit, and sometimes small rodents and dead animals. They are considered beneficial and good for the garden because they eat so many things that are harmful to plants.
Although having been for millions of years, in recent history they did not occur in Connecticut before the early 1900’s. They expanded their range from southeastern United States and are now found throughout New England.
If they are threatened usually at first they will show their teeth, hiss, drool and release smelly bodily fluids. If this doesn’t work and they become extremely fearful they will “play dead” also known as “playing possum”. They really aren’t “playing”, this is an involuntary action, like fainting, where they pass out from fear. They aren’t usually aggressive or territorial, but can inflict a nasty bite when protecting their young. Instead of digging their own burrows they take over generally “abandoned” dens, but have been known to inhabit a den with other animals still at home.
There are some other interesting facts about opossums. Due to their much lower body temperature, they are eight times less likely to contract rabies than other mammals. They also have partial or total immunity to venom from venomous snakes like the copperhead and rattlesnake.
Another good reason to have opossums around they eat ticks, about 5,000 in a season.
“In a way, opossums are the unsung heroes in the Lyme Disease epidemic.”
Rick Ostfeld, author of a book on Lyme disease ecology and a senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, explains…
“Because many ticks try to feed on opossums and few of them survive the experience. Opossums are extraordinarily good groomers it turns out – we never would have thought that ahead of time – but they kill the vast majority – more than 95% percent of the ticks that try to feed on them. So these opossums are walking around the forest floor, hoovering up ticks right and left, killing over 90% of these things, and so they are really protecting our health.”
Children’s book: Vulture Verses, Love Poems for the Unloved by Diane Lang, illustrated by Lauren Gallepos