What Makes Opossums Distinct?
The opossum (not to be confused with the Australian bush-tailed possum) is the only marsupial native to the United States. You can recognize this mid-sized mammal by its long pink nose, hairless ears, and rat-like tail that can grasp and climb like an extra limb.
Originally, opossums were only found in wild, rural areas, and while they’re now widespread in urban areas like towns and cities, they’re rarely harmful to humans.
So, what makes the opossum distinct?
One of a Kind
Opossums are marsupials – otherwise known as pouched mammals – and they’re the only one of their kind in the United States. Other well-known marsupials are kangaroos, wallabies, and koalas.
Marsupials are known for giving birth very early to tiny, embryo-like offspring. Then, this incredible species carries their young in a belly pouch, where the baby – known as a ‘joey’ – continues the rest of its development.
Specifically, opossums are only pregnant for about 12 days. Their young – anything from 20 to 30 of them – are born blind and naked, making their next move a real challenge: crawling into Mom’s pouch. Completely defenseless and as tiny as a grain of rice, most opossum newborns do not survive the journey.
Once inside the pouch, the little joey will stay put for 2 to 3 months until they get big enough to emerge. Then, they’ll spend the next few months on their mother’s back, where they remain while she hunts for food.
In total, it takes about 6 months until the females are old enough to fend for themselves. The males take a little longer – around 8 months.
Something to go here.
Something to go here.
Opossums are easily frightened.
When faced with an immediate threat, such as the presence of a predator, they’ll play dead. In fact, this marsupial family is so famed for faking death that there’s a common name for the tactic – ‘playing possum’.
The bizarre state can last up to 6 hours. It’s characterized by the opossum lying on its side, with mouth and eyes open, and its tongue hanging out. It’ll give off a noxious odor from its anal glands, too, in an effort to drive predators away.
As amusing as it is, the humble opossum isn’t going to be nominated for the next Oscar. These creatures aren’t acting when they play dead – in fact, they have no choice. It’s an involuntary action, triggered by extreme fear and stress, that causes the opossum to enter this state.
Despite their non-threatening nature, America’s gentle opossum has been hunted for hundreds of years.
Traditionally, Native Americans hunted and ate opossum before introducing it to European colonists who arrived in the 16th century. A nocturnal animal, opossums were hunted at night by dogs and taken alive, although some more ambitious hunters tried to seize them in the day.
Opossums were hunted for their fur and meat; they reportedly taste similar to pork. In the late 1800s, the artist and naturalist John James Audubon wrote extensively about the opossum, declaring in his final publication that the opossum made an ‘excellent substitute for roast pig’.
Primarily, hunting opossums was most popular in the southern United States. This is because, for many years, the opossum’s range reached no further north than Maryland.
In some states like Missouri, it’s still permissible to hunt the creatures today – the state issues license permits from November through January.
So, the American opossum is distinct for several reasons. It is:
- The only marsupial found north of Mexico
- Famous for playing dead when threatened
- Traditionally hunted and eaten in the southern states
While these furry-skinned creatures may be a little unsightly, it’s important to remember they’re non-aggressive, easily frightened, and are of no threat to humans.