OPOSSUMS: Misunderstood, Fantastic, Necessary – Give them a Break

Opossums are necessary for a clean environment – let’s give them a break and learn about their habits, their special abilities and their role in our community.

As the development of once rural areas like our own here in Evans increases, the opossum continues to be pushed out of its natural habitat and forced to live in a more urban environment. Opossums are extremely adaptable and have successfully made the transition to accept people as their neighbors. With a little tolerance and understanding you can do the same for the opossum, and we can all happily co-exist.

It’s important that we try to do that with facts, and debunk some common Opossum myths.

While opossums do have a “rat-like” tail they are NOT rats and they are NOT rodents. They are MARSUPIALS. They give birth to tiny babies that grow and develop in their mothers pouch, just like a kangaroo.

Newborn baby opossums growing in their mother’s pouch.

Later on, when the babies are more developed, you can see them hitching a ride on their mom’s back.

Opossums can NOT carry rabies or other diseases because they have one of the lowest body temperatures of any mammal. The worst thing they might have is fleas (and lets be honest everyone has fleas at some point). They are not worthless. Opossums clean up rotting fruit, keep pest species like snails under control, and play a valuable role in every ecosystem, even in the city.

Opossums only bite if cornered and something touches them, bites at them, or physically attacks them. They have no other choice (I would bite too). They do NOT chase people or pets or livestock. Opossums are not the smartest of mammals, they are one of the most ancient, and the slowest to change and evolve. Dogs, cars, and people taking shots at them for fun, decrease their numbers at a rapid rate every year. Opossums live their short lives running on instinct, scavenging for food, and hiding from all the “scary” things they encounter.

Ten Facts about Opossums you need to know:

1. NATURAL IMMUNITY.  Opossums are mostly immune to rabies, and in fact, they are eight times less likely to carry rabies compared to wild dogs.

2. POISON CONTROL. Opossums have superpowers against snakes. They have partial or total immunity to the venom produced by rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and other pit vipers.

3. OMNIVORE GALORE.  Their normal diet consists of carrion, rodents, insects, snails, slugs, birds, eggs, frogs, plants, fruits and grains. They also eat human food, table scraps, dog food and cat food. They have an unusually high need for calcium, which incites them to eat the skeletons of rodents and road kill they consume. They’re the sanitation workers of the wild.

4. SMART CRITTERS.  Although many people think opossums are not the sharpest knives in the drawer, there are several areas of intelligence in which they soar. For one, they have a remarkable ability to find food and to remember where it is. When tested for the ability to remember where food is, opossums scored better than rats, rabbits, cats, dogs … but not as well as humans. They also can find their way through a maze more quickly than rats and cats.

5. PEST CONTROL.  Since their diet allows them to indulge on snails, slugs. ticks and beetles, they are a welcome addition to the garden. Opossums also keep rats and cockroaches at bay by competing with them for food. In fact, it’s common for opossums to kill cockroaches and rats if they find them in their territory.

6. ALL THUMBS.  The opossum has opposable “thumbs.” The opossum’s “thumbs” (called halux) are on its rear feet (so, technically they’re toes), and abet the opossum’s formidable climbing skills. Primates and opossums are the only mammals with opposable first toes.

7. IMPRESSIVE TAILS.  They 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. Opossums have been observed carrying bundles of grasses and other materials by looping their tail around them; this conscious control leads many to consider the tail as a fifth appendage, like a hand.

While they don’t actually sleep hanging by their tails, opossums do like to hang out with their buddies!

8. GOOD PUPILS. The eyes of the opossum appear black, but what we are seeing are strongly dilated pupil; there is iris around them, it’s just mostly out of sight. The giant pupils are thought to be an adaptation to their nocturnal habits.

9. SMILE!  The mouth of an opossum holds an impressive 50 teeth.

10. NATURAL DEFENSES.  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.

And a bonus for the Scrabble players: Male opossums are called jacks and females are called jills. The young are referred to as joeys, just like their Australian cousins, and a group of opossums is called a passel.

Remember All Wildlife Is Important!


Sources:  rememberwildlife.org   www.pleasebekind.com    www.mnn.com/earth-matters   opossumsocietyus.org/