Opossums are truly unique among our local wild mammals. Unfortunately Long Islanders are probably most familiar with them as road kill, observed belly up along our busy roadsides. That’s not a sight that inspires curiosity about these animals that are really one of our more interesting wild neighbors. I hope this blog will engender a little more respect for Didelphis virginiana – the North American Opossum.
Our local opossum is also known as the Virginia Opossum after the state in which European colonists first noted it in the early 1600’s. It was described in rather unflattering terms as having “a tail like a rat, and a head like a swine” to paraphrase. This may be superficially true, but the opossums tail, while rat like, is much more versatile than the tail of a rodent. For that matter, rodents are only distantly related to opossums. The tail of this marsupial is quite prehensile, and is often used rather like a fifth limb, in addition to its other dexterous four feet. The tail, which is hairless, allows the opossum to navigate tree branches with ease. Amazingly to me, it also uses its tail to help gather twigs and leaves for nesting material. Check out the attached video provided by Kings Park Focus on Nature reader Stephan Nash. You’ll be impressed to see this animal gathering leaves for a nest with its tail. The opossum also possesses a toe on each foot which is somewhat offset from the other toes. This gives the feet an appearance analogous to a human hand, and allows the marsupial to firmly grip branches. This animal’s body is covered with soft, grey – brown fur, while the facial area is white. Opossums are active all year round, and do not hibernate like some other mammals in our area.
These nocturnal creatures are omnivores, and this diet makes them well adapted to suburban life. If they have access to trash, or pet food they will readily take advantage of that opportunity. Their natural diet includes insects, other invertebrates such as slugs and snails, and small animals such as reptiles and amphibians. They will also take small rodents as prey, including voles and rats. Additionally, opossums are not above scavenging carrion. Rounding out their diet are a variety of fruits (the more rotten the better!) and berries.
These mammals are especially unique in that they are North America’s only marsupials, contrasting with the far more numerous placental mammals, including us. The female gives birth to a litter of as many as eight babies. The young crawl from the small womb to the compartment called the pouch, where they remain for up to three months. Protected from the elements, the young will have a choice of thirteen nipples for milk! When lodgings in the pouch become more crowded than cozy, the young will leave the pouch and make their way to their mothers back. They will hitch - hike on their mom for another two months before finally going off on their own. A Virginia Opossum produces up to two litters a year. The male of the species plays no role in rearing the young.
These marsupials are harmless if left alone, and although they have lots of sharp teeth (fifty, to be exact) they are reluctant to use them even in self-defense. Though they can inflict a painful bite, if given the option they prefer to flee from danger. If that isn’t possible they have the curious tendency to “play possum” by entering a state of torpor. In this reflexive condition they are limp, their eyes open, and tongue lolling. Additionally, they excrete a vile smelling liquid. This strategy has evolved to either deter predators that are stimulated to attack by live prey, or to defuse an animal’s territorial instinct.
Despite this unique survival adaptation, opossums are confronted with many challenges. They must run a gauntlet of predators, including owls, foxes, coyotes, and of course humans and our cars. An opossum is genetically programmed to have a very short lifespan. In the wild they will live typically live about two years, at most four years. Despite these handicaps, this species is hardy. Didelphis virginiana is resistant to diseases that affect other mammals, such as rabies and lyme. The fossil record of the opossum goes back 70 million years, so clearly these animals are an evolutionary success story. Their ancestors managed to dodge the likes of the dinosaurs. Unfortunately they have a more difficult time staying out of the way of SUV’s. Having read this blog, I hope you’ll look at these interesting marsupials with a bit more appreciation. Though not glamorous creatures, I think they deserve a little more respect.
See you on the trails!