Virginia Opossum


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A marsupial is an animal that carries her young in a pouch attached to her belly. Usually when thinking of marsupials, most people think of Australia. Australia has the largest and most diverse collection of marsupials in the world, ranging from the kangaroo, the wombat, the Koala bear, the Tasmanian devil among others. Of the 101 species of marsupials, 60 are found in Australia. There is also a diverse collection of marsupials in South America. There are no living native species of marsupial species in Europe, Africa, and Asia, though there are certainly introduced marsupials in those regions.

In North America, there are two marsupials found on the continent. The southern opossum is a species that lives primarily in Mexico, while the Virginia opossum is found primarily on the eastern United States, though its habitat is expanding with humans. Many people confuse the spelling of the Virginia opossum with another Australian native, the possum. There certainly are some physical differences between the possum and opossum; however, possums have fury tails whereas opossums have bare tails similar to rats. (During the winter, their tails can get frostbite if they need to search for food in cold conditions.) Furthermore, there are many different varieties of possum species in Australia, whereas there are only two species of opossum. According to a study conducted by scientist from UCLA, the University of Florida, and others, ( the Virginia opossum is likely a descendent of the marsupials form South America. However what really becomes interesting is that certain research points to the marsupial family originating in North American, moving to South America, crossing over Antarctica and then moving into Australia. The ancient marsupials in North America became extinct. There was not a marsupial on this continent until the Virginia opossum began establishing populations.

The word opossum comes from the Algonquian (Powhatan) language. The word means white beast or animal. There is no real concrete answer to why the opossum begins with a silent "O". The most famous trait of the Virginia opossum is its characteristic to play dead when threatened. While many animals including the opossum will strategically run away or even lash out when threatened, the opossum oftentimes plays dead. Much is made of the opossum faking strategic death; it is actually an involuntary shock-like state that produces a foul smell from the rear of the animal. Opossums also are known to bare their teeth in a fierce display. They are not fierce animals and don't have the capability of fighting with any animals their size or smaller. They are certainly not a threat to humans. The opossum can hang on their tails from limbs of trees. They use their tails to slide from branch to branch.

Opossums eat many different kinds of small animals. They eat eggs, lizards, worms, maggots. They are also scavengers, who will eat dead animals. Opossum also eat fruits and vegetables. The natural predators of the opossum include coyotes, foxes, owls, and automobiles. While man can pose a threat to their native environment, their range has increased due to their adaptability to live near man, and scavenge trash and pet food.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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