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Species Profile:  Virginia OpossumWe Aren't "Playing Possum"... We Need Your Support!

by Michael Olek

It was a brisk night. The snow had been falling in those large, fluffy flakes that seemed to take forever to touch down. Every so often a light breeze would momentarily whip the billowy flakes into a frenzy ... reminding me of a ballet troupe spinning and dancing to a wilderness version of the Nutcracker Production. The late evening in the woods had a romantic flavor much like those scenes depicted on a Christmas card. The forest was extremely silent, yet well lit by a large moon illuminating the snow covered world. My breath crystallized a few inches from my stinging face as I huffed and puffed my way along.

I had been following the trail of an injured opossum. It seemed like a dream, that only an hour ago I was snug at home getting ready to go to bed for the night, and now here I was trudging through this winter wonderland. I had responded to a call from a man whose three dogs discovered an opossum sleeping curled up under his porch deck. Apparently, the dogs had dragged the animal out of its sleeping place and had mauled it before their owner could get them back into the house. The opossum was injured and bleeding, and had dragged itself into the woods to escape its attackers. If I didnít hurry, the falling snow would soon obliterate the trail of the blood speckled snow. I was amazed at how deep into the woods this animal was able to venture in its condition.

Eventually, I discovered a small bundle, lying at the base of an appleThe Opossum has a Prehensile Tail and Opposable Thumbs...Making Them Great Climbers! tree slightly ahead of me. It was slightly covered by a dusting of snow. The signs indicated that it had apparently tried to climb the tree, but was unable to. The animal gave no struggle as I wrapped it in a towel and placed it into the transport carrier. During the weeks to follow, my patient was provided with warmth, proper nutrition and medical care, before it was released back into the wild.

The Virginia Opossum -Didelphis marsupialis is North Americaís only marsupial or pouched mammal. They are descendants of a prehistoric era. While these nocturnal animals are not considered to be the brightest bulb in the animal kingdom, the species does have a knack for survival. I recall a wildlife nutritionist at a seminar once remark, "Opossums are so dumb that sometimes they forget to eat, yet so hardy that they sometimes will eat their own tails." Iím sure that she was exaggerating to make a point. The tail and ears of this animal is susceptible to frostbite. This is commonly seen by rehabilitators since these appendages are not fur covered.

Opossums are omnivores, meaning that they eat just about anything. They are a small to medium sized slow moving mammal of white to whitish gray coarse fur. They have a long naked prehensile tail and pointed snout with a pink nose, giving them a rather large rat-like appearance. Opossums have 50 teeth, and opposable thumbs on their rear hand-like feet. This prehensile tail which acts as a third hand, and the opposable thumbs, make this odd creature an excellent climber. Climbing is useful in finding food and shelter or escaping danger. Opossums are also able to escape danger by sneering, hissing and exposing those 50 teeth. When all of these warnings fail, the opossum will lay very still and pretend to be dead, hence the phrase, " Playing Possum!"

Adults weigh between 4 to 15 lbs. They are polygamous, breeding at about 1 year of age, and depending on their geographic location and availability of food, will breed anytime from January to October. The peak breeding season is February to March. Gestation is only 12 or 13 days, after which the 5 to 25 honeybee sized embryos swim through their momís fur to her pouch. The race to a nipple is crucial for survival since mother opossum rarely has enough nipples for all the young. The young that do make it will remain in the pouch attached to a nipple for about 60 days. Once they emerge from the pouch they will remain with their mother, clinging to her back until they are weaned, which takes roughly another 30 days. Soon they will go their separate ways to seek out their own territories of 15 to 40 acres. The average life span of opossums in the wild is 1 to 2 years with a maximum of about 7 years.

Over the years, I have rehabilitated several opossums. I canít help but wonder why this animal is North Americaís only marsupial, yet Australia, known for all of its marsupials, are lacking the Virginia opossum.

© Copyright 2000 Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.

This species profile is copyrighted and may only be reprinted with the express permission of Messinger Woods Wildlife Care & Education Center, Inc.

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The Virginia Opossum is North America's Only Marsupial!

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