5 minute read

Opossums Are Our Friends

Text by Jo Clark

tThis not-so-cute little nocturnal friend eats thousands of ticks, making it super helpful and one of the best wildlife critters to have in your yard. And just for the record, it really is pronounced possum, not OH-possum—that “o” is as silent as the opossum!

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Opossums are always on the lookout for an easy meal. They eat nearly anything like fruits, grains, plants or animals, and they aren’t above rummaging through trash. Keep garbage secure if you don’t want to be on the local opossums’ buffet route.

They especially like deer ticks—the ones that spread Lyme disease. Scientists at the Cary Institute estimate these marsupials eat about 5,000 ticks in a single season. So when you think about it, which do you prefer? A disease? Or an occasional opossum passing through? And the bonus: The ravenous opossum also happily chows down on cockroaches, mice, rats and dead animals.

Relatives Down Under

The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is the only native North American marsupial. The opossum earns this designation because they raise their young joeys in a pouch, just like a kangaroo. Worldwide, there are more than 330 marsupials, 250 and upward are found in Australia; all but one of the rest live in South America.

The possum and an opossum are the same thingsbut, full disclosure, only the “Virginiana” variety. Once you’re down under, in Australia, there is a difference between the two. The Virginia opossum and Australian possum are known as the brushtail possum. Both are small marsupials, but their possum looks more like a furry chinchilla crossed with a squirrel and belongs to a completely different mammal family.

Fun fact: The opossum is closely related to the kangaroo. Newborns are the size of a honeybee and live in the mother’s pouch for nearly three months. As they grow, they climb out of the pouch and hang onto mom’s back as she searches for food.

Too Clumsy For a Tightrope

If you’ve ever waited for an opossum to cross your path, you may have a preconceived notion that they are a bit clumsy. Nothing could be further from the truth. An opossum is a talented tree climber, and a hollowed-out trunk is one of their favorite places to nest. The opossum has opposable thumbs on their hind feet, sharp claws and a prehensile tail. All these combine to allow an opossum to climb and hang onto branches with the best of the lemurs, which have these same traits.

With their long noses and hairless tails, opossums may look a bit mousy, but quiet? Maybe not so much. Try cornering one with a broom to shoo it off your porch, and you’ll hear hissing and growling that will put a cat to shame. Other than when they’re threatened, they are generally quiet. Young opossums call their mother with a sound like sneezing, and the mother clicks in reply. Males also use that clicking sound to attract a mate.

Common Misconceptions

Opossums carry rabies. Not! Now, it can happen, but rarely. Their body temperature is so low the rabies virus can’t survive. They have pretty strong immunities. They usually don’t contract Lyme disease from tick bites. And opossums are immune to venom from honeybees, scorpions and snakes like cottonmouths and rattlesnakes. The only venom they are not resistant to is that of the coral snake. Scientists are studying this in an attempt to recreate this antivenom.

Opossums play dead. Well, not so much. They’re not pretending or faking. This is an involuntary reaction— triggered by stress—the poor little thing has fainted. And while unconscious, they foam at the mouth while baring their teeth (all 50 of them) and produce a foul smell. They can remain like this for up to four hours. It is a mechanism to deter predators that avoid carrion, like foxes and bobcats. Opossums sleep hanging from their tail. Their tails are pretty strong, but they could only hang upside down briefly. Not long enough for a good night’s sleep.

Opossums are unsanitary. That smell-like-death act gives them a bad rap. The opossum is actually very clean, more than most woodland animals. Like cats, they use their tongue and paws as grooming aids.

Opossums are dumb animals. They are intelligent and have an impressive memory—at least when we’re talking about food. Researchers discovered opossums are better than rats, cats, dogs or pigs at remembering which maze led to food. They also recognize the smell of toxins up to a year after smelling it.

Another Interesting Fact

Opossums must be smart—they only have a 13day pregnancy! But few 13-day-old babies survive. Litters produce about 20 births, with only eight surviving. The joeys crawl into the mother’s pouch and continue to grow there for several months. As they become more adventurous, the babies ride on mom’s back or cling to her tail. At around 100 days, they are ready for independence. A quip my Grandma used fits these little rascals: “They’re so ugly, they’re cute!” Or, maybe, it’s just a face that only a mother could love!

Jo Clark is a freelance writer and photographer who has lived in, passes through often and loves the New River Valley. She tries hard to go everywhere, on Instagram @ JoGoesEverywhere, or Facebook, Have Glass, Will Travel.