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All Creatures,

Episode 169: Awesome O-Possum

June 23, 2020

Guess what?? There are over 103 species of Opossum! Then down to Australia and you will find over 70 species of Possum. This week we will focus exclusively on the North America’s only marsupial, the Virginian Opossum. These are some incredibly fun animals to learn about. Please share this episode with your friends to educate them on an amazing creature.

Opossum History

Marsupials diverged from Eutherian mammals approximately 90 million years ago. It is thought they evolved in North America. They then expanded into South America and the Pacific rim. They then went extinct in North American about 3 million years ago. Prior to that, around 70 million years ago is when marsupials migrated to Antarctica and eventually Australia. The Virginian Opossum migrated up from South or Central America about 3 million years ago into North America.

The opossum is from the family of Didelphidae. There are roughly 103 species of opossum from North American down until South America. The Virginia Opossum’s scientific name is Didelphis virginiana. 

Opossum Physiology

The Virginia Opossum is a marsupial. They like the others carry their young in a pouch. Unfortunately, these animals have a short life span of about 2 years in the wild, with a max of 4 years. However, they reproduce often.

Other facts include:

  • The opossum has opposable “thumbs” on its rear feet. This assist the opossum’s formidable climbing skills. Primates and opossums are the only mammals with opposable first toes. The opossum have prehensile tails which are adapted for grasping and wrapping around things like tree limbs. The opossum can hang from its tail for short periods of time, but the creature doesn’t sleep hanging from its tail, as some people think.
  • When threatened, opossums run, growl, belch, urinate and defecate. And when all else fails, they “play ‘possum” and act as if they are dead. It is an involuntary response (like fainting) rather than a conscious act.
  • They roll over, become stiff, close their eyes (or stare off into space) and bare their teeth as saliva foams around the mouth and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from glands. The catatonic state can last for up to four hours, and has proven effective as a deterrent to predators looking for a hot meal.
  • Virginia opossums may be predated upon by a variety of species including owlsdomestic dogscoyotesred foxesraccoonsbobcats and large snakes, among others.
  • They also are immune to venom and will prey upon snakes.
  • Virginia opossums eat almost anything, including fruit, insects, earthworms, eggs, nestlings, birds, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and carrion.

Conservation

The Virginia Opossum is listed as Least Concern with an increasing population. These animals adapt very well to urban environments.

Organizations

EDGE of Existence 

Opossum Awareness & Advocacy

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