‘Oh’possum, a Tick Eating, Fear Fainting Marsupial

Is the ‘possum’ an opossum or just a possum?
 
Opossums are North America’s only marsupial, an animal that carries and feeds minuscule young in a pouch.

First Observations, Description & Misidentification

 
When they were first observed (and recorded), during the early 1600’s, John Smith stated that the animal “hath an head like a swine …tail like a rat … of the bigness of a cat.”  Its name was derived from an expression for “white dog/beast” in the Virginia Algonquian language.
Animal misidentification is still common today… If your “cat” has a hairless tail that it hangs from, toothy alligator-like jaws, and it hisses, it’s probably a Virginia opossum.
 

Fossil Record & Species Introduction to California 

Opossums can be traced through sixty million years of the fossil record. What makes this even more astounding is the animal’s two-year lifespan!

Evolved for tropical ecosystems, several waves of opossum were introduced to California. The first population was brought to southern California in 1890, Tennessee immigrants brought the second wave to central California in 1910 as a food source and escapees from a fur trading operation was responsible for a third wave.

 

Traits Supporting Adaptability 

Opossum tracks. Opossums have opposable thumbs on all four feet. Photo Credit: Lensim

  • “Hands” (opposable thumbs) on all four feet
  • Prehensile tail – used like a 5th limb/hand 
  • Freezes when in danger 
  • Faints – nervous shock reaction – falls over & plays dead
  • Anal gland secretions – a repulsive greenish musk-like fluid 
  • Females can have three litters/year – producing up to 20 babies each
  • Short gestation period – 11-14 days
  • Rabies resistant (probably from low body temperature)
  • Resistance to poisonous snake venom
    Predators that eat living animals often leave prey that appears (and smells) dead. the animal rolls over on its side, becomes limp, shuts its eyes, and lets its tongue hang from an open mouth. The heartbeat slows and the animal appears to be dead.

 

Diet

They’re omnivores and will eat anything.

  • Small rodents
  • Ticks – up to 5,000 in a season! (Lyme disease reduction)
  • Insects
  • Slugs
  • Snails
  • Worms
  • Frogs
  • Birds
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Garbage
  • Pet Food
  • Bird Seed

Opossums are nocturnal scavengers. They’re attracted by the smell of rotting food in garbage cans and along roadways.

After 2.5 months in the marsupial pouch, babies come out and cling to their mother’s fur.

Jacks, Jills & Joeys

Adult males and females are known as Jacks and Jills. Babies are Joeys.

Pouch Checking

Habitat

An opossum’s first habitat of choice is near streams and wetlands. Since they are not prolific diggers, they’ll shelter in tree cavities, abandoned burrows of other animals, under brush piles or under manmade structures.

In urban areas, they can be found under decks, in garden sheds, attics, garages, or under steps. Nesting material appears like random debris piles rather than woven or constructed.

Opossum Pest Prevention

Because of their varied diet, adaptability, and warm winter climates, the animals have successfully integrated into urban environments. If you have opossums living near your home, below are a few actions you can take to encourage them to move.

  • clear overhanging brush away from the walls of our home and roof – at least 5 feet.
  • remove fallen fruit from under fruit trees
  • tightly stack firewood, at least 18″ off the ground
  • tight-fitting garbage can lids
  • feed pets indoors and/or move pet food inside at night
  • poultry wire protection fencing around gardens (burry down under earth at the base at least 6″)
  • keep food scraps out of compost piles
  • screen access to under house or steps

Although Opossums can carry disease, and their defense strategies are noxious and showy, they are not generally considered dangerous wild animals.

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Resources:

Bay Nature – More Opossums for the Internet

Blog Post Opossum Artist – Bonnie McKeegan

Davis Wiki – Opossums

Mental Floss – What’s the Difference Between a Possum and an Opossum?

Mother Jones – I’ve Stayed Silent Too Long: Opossums Deserve Our Love

Nevada County Wildlife Services

NPR – Declining Biodiversity Speeds Spreading of Disease

Opossum Society of the United States – General Information

Pest Management Professional – Why The Opossum Successfully Lives in the Shadows of Humans

Science Daily – Climate change, urbanization driving opossum’s northward march

The Opossum: Its Amazing Story by William & Winifred Krause {Dept. of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences, School of Medicine, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri] PDF

Northern Woodlands – Live Wierd, Die Young: the Virginia Opossum

SFGate – What do Opossums Eat and Are they Dangerous?

University of California Agriculture & Natural Resources – Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program  – Opossum

Wikipedia – Virginia Opossum

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