Opossum is a small to medium-sized marsupial, which belongs to the family Didelphidae of the order Didelphimorphia.
It is a fascinating creature with strange physical features i.e. it has a mouth similar to a pig, a tail like a mouse, hands like a human, a body as thick as a cat. The entire body is covered with grey and white hair except for the ears and tail.
The opossum is an old Native American tribal word, which means white beast.
It is native to North and South America, unlike other marsupials which are restricted to Australia only. There are more than 100 species, all of which are found in South America (Brazil, Argentina, etc.), while only one species, Virginia opossum is found in North America (Mexico, USA, Canada).
Virginia opossum inhabits a variety of habitats and usually prefer wet areas to live but can also be found in forests, cities and woodlands etc. They usually den in trees and wooden logs. If the female is about to give birth, she prefers a safe and covered place free from predators. They also occupy dens once inhabited by other animals.
- Its physical features are very strange. The female can be distinguished from the male as it has a kangaroo-like pouch in her belly in which she carries her young ones.
- Opossums have 50 teeth, the highest number found in any mammal.
- The opossums have a unique reproductive tract i.e. male has a bifurcated copulatory organ. The female also has a similar forked reproductive tract with 2 uteri and two vaginal canals. It may be the reason that they give birth to a large number of babies.
- The opossum’s body is designed to hang and walk on trees. They have thick and prehensile tails just like monkeys adapted to hang and wrap around things. They have opposable thumbs on their feet used to grip and hold branches, just like human hands. 9
Opossums can mate three times a year, while the gestation period of Virginia opossum is 13 days, and a female gives birth to 9 to 20 young ones at a time. Females have 13 nipples and if the babies exceed 13, they have to fight hard for these nipples for food. A baby opossum is about the size of a bee at birth and crawls into the mother’s pouch shortly after birth.7
Female opossum as a mother:
The male opossum leaves the female after mating, and the female raises the young ones alone. After a certain period, the babies leave the pouch. After leaving, the mother carries them on her back and teaches them skills necessary for their survival, such as how to find food and how to avoid a predator. After getting mature, the young ones leave their mother and start making their way in the forest.
Opossums eat everything, they are scavengers and omnivores. They eat fruits, vegetables, insects, lizards, frogs, small birds and even snakes. The major part of their food consists of ticks, but they also like to feed on snakes. They feed on about 12 species of snakes, including the rattlesnake. Opossum body has innate immunity against snake’s venom.
How do they defend themselves?
When it feels threatened, it shows off its teeth and produces a hissing sound to ward off its predator. Virginia opossum also secrete a foul-smelling fluid from its anal region in case of any danger so that predators avoid eating them.
When an opossum feels excessive fear, it pretends to be dead. It seizes its body, lies on one side, takes out its tongue, curls up its body and pretends to be dead. Playing dead is an involuntary reaction to a threat. It can stay in this state for hours, and can’t snap out of this condition even after the threat disappears.
Opossum as a pet:
In many US states, it is prohibited to keep it in the house, but in the states where it is allowed, people keep it and enjoy its company immensely. Unlike its scary teeth, it is a very cool and patient pet. Even if you put your hand in front of its open mouth, it will try to bite maybe once in 100 and even when biting it will only press lightly with its teeth just to scare you off.
Predators of opossum:
Mammals are most susceptible to the rabies virus (dog bite disease), but opossums are rarely affected by rabies. This is because their body temperature is lower than other animals, which reduces the spread of the virus. Their enemies are eagles, owls, foxes, bobcats, and coyotes, but there is still no threat to their population.
The life span of Virginia opossum is 2 years.
Opossum role in the ecosystem:
Opossums are integral part of the ecosystem as they eradicate ticks and other harmful pests from nature. As scavengers, they feed on dead animals and keep the environment free from their dead bodies.
Opossums eat about 5,000 ticks at a time and thus protect other animals and humans from dangerous tick-related diseases such as Lyme disease, babesiosis, Rocky mountain spotted fever.