Opossums vs. Possums
When is a possum not a possum? When it’s an opossum, of course!
It may come as a surprise that the two animals are not the same. The term “possum” is so common in American dialects that we may not be aware that the correct term for the cat-sized animal often found poking its white face into our trash cans is actually opossum, rather different from its Australian cousin, the possum, but remarkably similar at the same time.
Both the opossum and the possum are marsupials, a type of mammal that gives birth to relatively undeveloped young at a very early stage of development. These youngsters must then make their way from the birth canal into their mother’s pouch, where they attach themselves to a teat and continue to develop.
While Australia may be teeming with marsupials, the opossum is the one and only one native to the Americas. The Virginia opossum is the only one to be found in the United States and Canada, but other family members live in South and Central America. It evolved in South America and made its way northward after a land bridge developed ages ago.
Both animals are nocturnal, being active at night. And both are omnivorous, eating various plants as well as frogs, snakes, insects, and the like.
However, the animals look quite different, despite some basic similarities in size and coloration.
American opossums are gray in color, although there are some cinnamon or white ones, with a white face and a long snout. They have an abundance of sharp teeth on their long jaw, which can make them appear a bit vicious, despite their gentle ways. Their tails are bare of fur, looking like a rat’s.
Australian possums are usually gray in color, and their fur is thicker and softer to the touch. They have a flatter snout and large, round nocturnal eyes. Their tails are bushy, with a ringed pattern.
Opossums and possums are related, but not that closely. They are more like distant cousins, so to speak. Possums are much more closely related to kangaroos and other Australian marsupials.
One characteristic they do share is the ability to “play possum”, meaning they both fake their death to avoid predation. This involves becoming stiff, having a slack-jawed appearance, eyes closed or half-lidded, and emitting a stinky green mucus from their anal glands which mimics the stench of a dead animal. This tactic evidently serves them well on both sides of the world, as it should. They can stay in this state for up to four hours, and often do so despite the continuing attack. Playing dead often morphs to being dead!
So, which came first, the possum or the opossum? The opossum was observed and named by John Smith, one of the founders of the English colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s. The name is derived from an Algonquin word meaning “white beast” or “white dog”. When Europeans arrived in Australia, the name “possum” was applied to one of the marsupials they found due to its resemblance to the American opossum.