Common Name: Virginia Opossum / Scientific Name: Didelphis virginiana
Country/Countries of Origin: United States, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America.
Range: Opossums are nomadic and like to stay on the move. They may stay in one location for two or three months, especially if a female has babies, but then they move along. They can walk up to two miles per evening in search of a tasty meal.
Normal Habitat: Opossums can be found just about anywhere. Although they prefer to stay under the radar and are quiet, non-aggressive animals, they have learned to adapt and co-exist with humans quite well. They can be found in cities as well as the country, in apartment complexes and farms. They live in burrows that have been dug by other mammals, woodpiles, under decks, in or under sheds, or just about anywhere they can wiggle their little butts in.
Life Span: Many opossums don’t survive past their first year due to predation ☹. General life span in the wild is two years. In captivity they can live three to four years.
Reproduction: Breeding takes place two times per year. The females can have up to thirteen joeys. They give birth after thirteen days to embryonic young. The babies then crawl into the pouch where they continue to form and grow for another two months.
Size (Height & Mass): About 2.5 feet long (tail included) and weigh between eight to fourteen pounds (the males are generally larger).
Diet: Pretty much anything goes for the opossum. They are true omnivores and will eat mice, snakes, ticks, grubs and other insects, shellfish, frogs, fruits, vegetables, nuts and whatever they find in your garbage can. They also eat carrion (dead stuff).
Distinguishing Features: The females have a pouch and the males have forked penises! Other than that, they all have long gray and white fur, “hands” with long fingers, small, black eyes, hairless prehensile tails, back feet with opposable thumbs and long, pointy faces with big, round, hairless ears.
Social Organization: None. The young (joeys) leave the mother at about three months of age and they all go their separate ways. Other than at mating time, the adults do not stay near each other.
Conservation Status: Not endangered.
Ecological Role: Opossums are nature’s little sanitation engineers. They help to clean up the environment by eating carrion. They also help to prevent the spread of tick-borne diseases (Lyme, etc) by consuming 4,000 ticks per year. They help to reduce rodent populations by eating mice and rats and they keep the snake population at bay.
Means of Communication: Opossums will hiss or spit to warn predators (or each other) away. Mothers will make clicking noises to herd her young and keep them near her. But, opossums are best known for their defensive communication to predators which says, “I’m dead and diseased – leave me alone!” Opossums play POSSUM! When they feel threatened, they puff up like cats and hiss. If that doesn’t scare the predator (i.e you or your dog) away, then they start to stagger around and drool (to make themselves appear to be sick). If that fails, they emit a foul-smelling substance from their anal glands (to make themselves smell extremely unappetizing). If all of those antics fail, then they involuntarily fall into a state of unconsciousness and appear to be dead. They can stay that way for minutes or hours, depending on how long the danger lasts. Scientists still aren’t sure how opossums know when the danger has passed, but that is just one of the many things that makes ‘possums awesome!
OTHER COOL OPOSSUM FACTS:
They have 50 teeth (the most of any other mammal)!
Males are called “jacks”. Females are called “jills”. Babies are called “joeys”.
Opossums have been around for 70 million years!
They are our ONLY native marsupials in the U.S. and Canada!
NOTE: PERMISSION TO POSSESS AND EXHIBIT WILDLIFE IS GRANTED BY THE VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF WILDLIFE RESOURCES (DWR).