The “O” is Important
Some people might think that the name “opossum” and the name “possum” are interchangeable—but they’re not. Opossums are a group of marsupials (pouched mammals) that live in the Americas. Possums—without the “o”—are a different group of marsupials, which all live in Australia and New Guinea. The story goes that Captain John Smith first used the name “opossum” in western culture in 1608. The word comes from the Algonquin name “aposoum” which means “white beast.”
They Are the Only Marsupial in Canada and the U.S.
Opossums, classified as marsupials because they nurse and carry their babies in pouches, are the ONLY marsupials north of Mexico. That’s right — there are no other marsupials in Canada or the United States.
The honeybee-sized newborns, called joeys, promptly crawl into the mother’s pouch to continue developing. Fewer than half will survive the journey to the pouch, and those who make it will latch onto a nipple for about 50 to 70 days.
Even after the joeys can leave the pouch, the mother will tote them on her back while she hunts and scavenges for food. The rapidly growing joeys will stay with their mother for about 100 days.
They Can’t Help Playing Dead
When threatened, an opossum may run, belch, bare its teeth, growl, hiss, and exude a repulsive, smelly, musk like fluid from its anal glands. If that does not work, they “play possum” and “play dead”. This involuntary reaction can last up to 4 hours. When playing dead, the animal rolls over on its side, becomes stiff, shuts its eyes, and lets its tongue hang from an open mouth. Their heartbeat slows and saliva foams around the mouth and they exude a foul smelling liquid so they smell like a dead animal. The heartbeat slows and the animal appears to be dead.
Well-meaning people who find a catatonic animal and assume the worst have killed many opossums who are merely playing dead. The best thing to do upon finding an injured or apparently dead opossum is to leave it in a quiet place with a clear exit path. In minutes or hours, if the opossum is merely playing dead, it will regain consciousness and escape quietly on its own.
Opossums Have Great Memories
Opossums are incredibly smart critters and they have very sharp memories. Opossums have a relatively small brain, but are able to find food as well as remember where they found it. In fact, opossums scored better than cats, rats, rabbits, and dogs in some tests for their memory. They can also remember how toxic or noxious substances taste.
They Are Virtually Immune to Rabies and Snake Venom
Nasty snakebites and attacks from rabies-infected animals are no match for these tough marsupials. This is because opossums are immune to almost all types of local snake venom and their low body temperatures provide an unsuitable environment for the rabies virus.
Opossums Provide Natural Pest Control
Opossums are opportunistic omnivores, and with 50 teeth in their mouth, they can eat a wide variety of animal and plant matter. While opossums may seem like vermin, they actually make great neighbors. They are sometimes called “Nature’s Little Sanitation Engineers. Just like vultures, opossums feed on carrion, which is dead animals. Decaying carcasses can easily spread some diseases, particularly ones that can make humans sick. By feeding on carrion, opossums help prevent the spread of disease. Because of their advanced immune systems, they can feed on the carrion without catching the otherwise potentially deadly diseases.
Opossums are also quite beneficial when it comes to natural pest control. They frequently eat snails, slugs, beetles, and other pests that disrupt home gardens, and they help keep rodent and cockroach populations in check by competing with the pests for food. As a bonus, they also eat rats and keep them naturally in check. The National Wildlife Federation reported in Give Opossums a Break: a study calculated “a single opossum might kill an astonishing 4,000 ticks in a week.”
That said, opossums might take the occasional bite of your tomatoes or corn, and they do have an unfortunate tendency to eat out of the compost heap. Usually though, they tend to seek decayed or overripe fruit. Finally, the non-aggressive opossums are nomadic and if you see some in your yard, they probably won’t stay very long.