What has grey fur, a naked prehensile tail, opposable thumbs, 50 sharp teeth, and a pouch?
While it may sound like the punch line to a bad joke, this is North America’s only marsupial, the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Often riddled with untrue misconceptions, America’s opossum holds one of the worst reputations. From disease carrying, to pest ridden, they are believed to be a very dirty creature—when in fact they are one of the cleanest.
Arguably one of the coolest animals we have in North America, opossums belong to the marsupial family (Not a rodent!). This can commonly be misunderstood because of their “rat like” physical appearances. Like kangaroos, opossums hold their young, called joeys, in a pouch where they are nursed and kept warm for the first 2 months of their lives.
Their naked tails have the ability to grasp and hold objects, aiding in climbing or hanging. Opossums have been documented using their tails as a fifth appendage by carrying materials such as bundles of grass. And like humans, they too have opposable thumbs. This means that they can move them in a way that allows them to touch all other fingers and have increased mobility. Characteristically a primate trait, opossums are the only other mammals that have opposable first toes.
Living on average to the age of two, opossums do us great favours in their very short life spans. As opportunistic scavengers they act as our natural pest control and will eat just about anything. This includes trash, snails, beetles, cockroaches, mice, rats, eggs, snakes, over-ripened fruit, and even road kill—often why they are found as road kill themselves. Because of their meticulous grooming regimens they also feed heavily on any ticks that find their way onto their fur. This makes them a very important ally in the fight against Lyme disease. According to Richard Ostfeld in his book Lyme Disease, one opossum can kill over 5,000 ticks in a season.
In addition to ticks, opossums will also eat a good number of snakes, some of them venomous. This has caused them to develop a resistance to snake venom. Research is currently being conducted to try and isolate this resistance to be used in humans as antivenom. Opossums are not only resistant to snake venom and Lyme disease, but also rabies. While possible for an opossum to contract rabies, it is extremely rare and unlikely that they will. Scientists explain that because of their lower body temperatures (94°-97°F) the virus is unable to survive. This makes them eight times less likely to carry the virus than wild dogs.
Opossums are commonly encountered and too often misunderstood. Like any wild animal, they should not be approached, fed, or touched. But they should be respected. Too many view this remarkable animal as a nuisance or pest. Opossums do their human friends many favours and often those are returned with fear, disgust, and sometimes harm. Knowing how helpful and important opossums are, you too can now help spread the word about the surprising and unique neighbors we are lucky to have.
With winter carrying on, remember the significance that opossums have and consider helping your local opossums finish out the winter strong. Opossum’s thin fur and naked ears, tails, and feet make them extremely vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite. Biologists even use signs of frostbite to estimate opossum’s ages and how many winters they have survived. Instead of hibernating, opossums overwinter and spend their time searching for food in even the coldest of weather. However, with the proper shelter, opossums have a better chance of surviving and surviving more comfortably.
To find out how to construct a winter opossum shelter visit here:
What other misunderstood animals are often considered to be a“nuisance”? And are they really a nuisance? Why do you think the public perception of some animals is so much worse than others?