We definitely get our share of opossums admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC, be it injured adults or orphaned babies. Although an adult opossum may be harder and heavier to handle, what’s not to love about a “Mickey-Mouse” baby possum? Recently, quite a number of sweet baby possums have made their way to the shelter in the arms of Good Samaritans. The Virginia Opossum, Didelphis Virginiana, is one of the more familiar and widespread mammals in the United States, found coast to coast, up into Canada and down into Costa Rica, in fields, thick forests, open woods, brushy wastelands, marshes, parks, residential areas and in the alleys of our large cities. They are generally lumped together in the public’s mind with raccoons, squirrels, rabbits and other wildlife, but an opossum is fundamentally a different breed of animal as singular in its evolutionary history as it is solitary in its habits. Opossums, which have been around since the dinosaur days, socialize only during breeding season.
The Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial (pouched mammal) found in the United States. They are commonly found in residential neighborhoods if cover is available. They are very adaptable and will homestead just about anywhere they find a food source. Omnivorous opossums eat a wide variety of foods, including: fruits, berries, insects, crayfish, small mammals, bird eggs, young birds, frogs, earthworms, snakes, lizards, mussels and tadpoles. Occasionally, they will raid poultry yards or gardens to feed on an egg or vegetables and fruits. However, they are more beneficial to humans than not because they feed on many types of yard nuisances, too, such as moles, voles, shrews, insects, snails, slugs and other invertebrates. Having a “Yard Angel” on your property, visiting your garden perhaps, shouldn’t be a problem. This non-aggressive and nondestructive animal will not dig up yards, attack or threaten pets or dig burrows. Opossums are opportunity eaters though, so accessible garbage, the spillover of pet food on your deck, or dead animals in the area will be gone by morning if your Yard Angel is on duty. The description of an opossum differs from person to person. Some perceive them as homely or ugly, but we wildlife rehabilitators at the shelter, think they’re beautiful, every last one of them! Regardless of personal perception, the physical facts cannot be debated or discounted. Virginia Opossums are medium-sized mammals, about the size of a large housecat, ranging from 6 to 13 lbs with a body length of 12-20 inches and a tail length up to 15 inches. They usually have whitish-gray fur, but sometimes can be blackish-gray. They have furless, black ears (hence, the “Mickey-Mouse” reference earlier) and a long naked tail. The opossum’s tail is prehensile, which means it can grab onto branches for balance and stability, but doesn’t usually hang by it. The head and throat of Virginia Opossums are white. They also have short legs, and the females have the pouch. Breeding season for opossums starts in late winter. Females will have two or three litters each year and each litter will be up to 13 young. Baby opossums are born much more quickly than other mammals. When they are born, they are about the size of a Honey Bee. Each embryonic baby will carefully crawl up its mother’s body to enter her pouch. Here, it will attach itself to a teat and feed. Baby opossums stay in their mother’s pouch for two months. Once they leave the pouch, they will stay awhile longer, clinging to her back as she wanders. A couple other descriptive factoids include their 50 very sharp teeth which is more than any land mammal, their unusual resistance to the venom of poisonous snakes, and they are extremely unlikely to acquire rabies.
The Opossum has many behavioral adaptations it uses to survive. They are most noted for feigning death or “playing possum” as a last resort when threatened. This reaction seems to be involuntary, and triggered by extreme fear. Opossums, when under serious threat, initially respond ferociously by hissing, screeching, growling, belching and showing its teeth. When those strategies don’t deter the threat they just fall over like a fainting goat and enter a near coma that can last up to four hours. It lies on its side, mouth and eyes open, tongue hanging out and emits a putrid, green fluid from its anus that effectively repels predators. Nasty, I know, but a possum’s gotta do what a possum’s gotta do! Despite these very effective survival methods, Opossums, like most marsupials, have unusually short life spans for their size and metabolic rate. The Virginia Opossum has a maximum life span in the wild of only about two years. Even in captivity, opossums live only about four years. So it’s very sad at the shelter when we lose one of our program possums due to longevity. They are environmentally beneficial and wonderful wildlife to get to know, and school children love to see our program opossum’s cute face, especially when eating grapes! Too cute!
Happy Fall, Everyone!!!
Author of “Save Them All“