The Opossum: Hands Like a Primate and Smarter Than a Dog

in StemSociallast year

The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis Virginiana)
Opossum 450 Uris at english wikipedia publid.jpg
Image credit: Uris at English Wikipedia. Public domain.

If you live in the Americas, you've likely seen a slow-moving critter in the backyard, or lurking in a tree. If the critter falls over in an apparent faint, you have definitely spotted an opossum.

It is often said that an opossum is 'playing dead' when it falls over. Actually, the opossum is not playing at anything. Fear causes an involuntary response which throws the opossum into a comatose state. An opossum in such a state cannot get up for quite a while, perhaps forty minutes, perhaps four hours.

An Opossum's Faint
Opossum2 playing dead hand Johnruble public.jpg
Image credit: Johnruble. Public domain

Not only is the opossum immobile at these times, but it emits a foul, death-like odor and exudes ooze from its mouth. In the wild, this might be a good defense mechanism. Predators that do not feed on carrion will move on.

However, not all predators reject dead animals as food. Scavengers, for example, readily eat carcasses, as do some other animals when food is scarce. So, "playing possum" actually becomes a death sentence, in that case. Also, on modern highways, freezing in place will likely turn an opossum into roadkill.

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The Opossum as a Casual Parent
And if you see one of these critters and it has a passel of little ones hanging on its back, you've spotted a female opossum with her offspring. If that situation looks precarious for the young, it is. Sometimes a baby opossum will fall off and the mother will keep going.

Virginia Opossum With Young
virginia opossum with young credit Specialjake 3.0.JPG
Image credit: Specialjake. Used under CC 3.0 license.

And, if you did spot an opossum, it was probably at night. The opossum is a nocturnal creature and also, is rather shy.

Virginia Opossum at Night
Virginia opossum Melissa McMasters from Memphis, TN, United States 2.0.jpg
Image credit: Melissa McMasters from Memphis, TN, United States. Used under a CC. 2.0 license.

While many people regard the opossum as a pest, it is not. Opossums are not rodents. They are marsupials. As a matter of fact, opossums eat rodents. And they also eat cockroaches, crickets, beetles, snakes, and even dead animals. Opossums seem to have partial immunity to snake venom. This immunity is of interest to researchers who think they might discover an effective anti-venom in the opossum's immunity.

Opossums also eat ticks with relish. They are tick vacuums. It is estimated that a single opossum eats 5,000 ticks in a single season. This omnivorous marsupial also has partial immunity to Lyme disease.

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These strange looking, slow-moving shy creatures are a beneficial addition to your backyard fauna.

Intelligence of the Opossum

There are some who believe the opossum is not "the brightest of animals". Research has proven this to be a mistaken view. Studies reveal opossum intelligence rates high on the animal scale. When it comes to remembering, they outperform dogs, cats, rats and rabbits. However, humans score higher. When it comes to tackling a maze, opossums score higher than cats and rats. And, when it comes to identifying toxic substances, once exposed to the substance, a (mature) opossum will not repeat the mistake.opossum wikimedia commons 4.jpg

The Opossum Is a Mammal
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Chart credit: AG Moore

Opossums are marsupials, which means offspring are born live and develop in the mother's pouch (called the marsupium). Marsupials are distinguished in this type of gestation from placentals, in which the young are carried and nourished inside the mother until fully developed. The developing offspring in a marsupial is called a joey.

Kangaroo Joey
Joey kangaroo in pouch Geoff Shaw 3.0.jpg
Image credit: Geoff Shaw. Used under CC 3.0 license. Here the underdeveloped kangaroo joey is attaching itself to the mother's teat in order to get nutrition. In a placental animal, nutrition at this stage of development would be provided by the placenta inside the mother.

Opossums have the shortest gestation period of any mammal. The young gestate for only 12 days. After that they migrate up to the mother's pouch. This perilous journey is often too much for the fragile young. Some don't make it. Others make it, but find there is no room for them. An opossum has 13 teats. Usually, however, the opossum will give birth to 20 offspring. Late comers to the pouch perish.

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After the extinction of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago, the three types of mammals evolved (marsupials, placentals and monotremes). While mammals existed before the dinosaur extinction, they were few in number and species.

It is believed that marsupials arose around the same time that Pangaea, the earth's early supercontinent, started to break up.

Pangaea Fama Clamosa 4.0.jpg
Image credit: Fama Clamosa. Used under CC 4.0 license.

According to the The British Journal of Ophthalmology, this division of the continents isolated marsupials on what would one day be Australia, Antarctica and South America. The South American marsupial eventually made its way up across the isthmus of Panama and the modern-day Virginia opossum is a result of that long journey.

White-Eared Opossum in Brazil
opossum, Brazil, white-eared Didelphis_albiventris-12-07-28 credit Rhalah 3.0.jpg
Image credit: Rhalah. Used under CC 3.0 license. According to the caption under this picture, the opossum was foraging in a kitchen when the photo was taken.

About 120 marsupial species evolved in Latin America, and about 250 in Australia. In the U. S., there is but one species, the Virginia opossum. The oldest marsupial fossil (or antecedent of marsupials) was discovered in North America, and is 110 million years old.

opossum ancestor Sinodelphys_szalayi_7.JPG
Image credit: Ghedoghedo. Used under CC 3.0 license.

This fossil is said to be 125 million years old. It is so well preserved that it even has fur on it. It was once believed to be the oldest marsupial fossil ("The Mother of all Marsupials"), but recent research indicates that it is actually an ancestor of placentals. This evolving notion of placental/marsupial development reveals that a definitive evolutionary record has yet to be established.

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Virginia Opossum Opposable Thumb
Virginia opossum opposable thumb Tony Alter 4.0.jpg
Image credit: Tony Alter. CC 4.0.

The opossums hind feet are constructed very much like a human hand. The 'thumb' on these hind legs is called a hallux and is the only one of the opossum's digits that does not have a nail. Just as is true with primates, this 'thumb' gives the opossum great flexibility in grasping.

Opossum's Prehensile Tail
opossum prehensile tail Internet Archive public.jpg
Image credit: Banta, Nathaniel Moore, 1867- Schneider, Albert, 1863- Higley, William Kerr, 1860-1908 Abbott, Gerard Alan in the book, "Nature Neighbors" 1914. Public domain.

Opossums have a prehensile tail, which is hairless. They use the tail as a fifth limb. It gives them greater flexibility in getting around, especially in climbing trees.

opossum wikimedia commons 4.jpg

Random Opossum Facts

***Opossums have more teeth than any other mammal in North America. When intimidated, an opossum will open its mouth, hiss, and show its teeth. Just like playing dead, this is just a ruse. Opossums are not aggressive toward humans.
Opossum Teeth
opossum teeth AwesomePossum-AmericanOpossum User PiccoloNamek on en.wikipedia 3.0.jpg
Image credit: User PiccoloNamek on en.wikipedia. CC 3.0 license.

***Opossums are nomadic. They are not territorial. They tend to wander around in the night and find a place to rest in the daytime. Check out this Youtube video and watch an opossum strut its stuff:

***Opossums get frostbite. They may lose ears or a tail. The Virginia opossum evolved in a warm climate and is not well suited to winter. Many opossum deaths are attributed to cold weather.opossum wikimedia commons 4.jpg

***Opossums in the wild have a short lifespan. It turns out that walking slowly and playing dead are not conducive to long life. In the wild, an opossum may live from 1.2 to 2 years. In captivity, it may live to 4 years, although there are reports of captive opossums living 10 years.opossum wikimedia commons 4.jpg

Opossum on a Fence
Opossum on a fence credit Sergey Yarmolyuk 4.0.jpg
Image credit: Sergey Yarmolyuk. Used under CC 4.0 license.

***The opossum has a low susceptibility to rabies because of a low body temperature.opossum wikimedia commons 4.jpg

***Opossums are wild animals. They can carry diseases, including tuleremia,, leptospirosis, and salmonella.opossum wikimedia commons 4.jpg


I was interested in learning about opossums because we have seen them around our property over the years. They seem to get along well with the feral cats we care for. Recently we found an opossum in one of the cat houses.
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We provide heating pads, so the house might have been irresistible for a cold opossum. Plus, of course, there's food :)

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Some Sources Used in Writing This Blog


Mammal Chart Credits

Platypus: Pearson Scott Foresman
Dedicated to the public domain
Kangaroo: From the book Dot and the Kangaroo (1899), By Ethel Pedley
Public domain
Elephant: Mammalwatcher
Public domain
Opossum Accents
I drew them, using as a model a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

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I have been schooled thoroughly about the opossum. I have never picked any interest in them largely because they are not found around here. This is a great write-up about the animal. I am bookmarking this for future reference.

Thank you very much for reading the blog and for responding so positively. I try to make the essays entertaining so they don't test readers' patience. A lot of information ;)

I was curious about this critter. Now I know it's not the same opossum we see all the time, but several opossums. Interesting.

Hope you and your family are well in these unsettled times.

We are doing great, thanks for asking. Hope yours are doing well too. I always look forward to reading from you.

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Hi, @agmoore! I've had a great time reading this. It's nice to find posts like this one, interesting and well crafted.

Here in Venezuela it's zarigüeya or, most commonly, rabipelado (which means they have a hairless tail).I have seen them quite a lot; the common variety here has dark fur.

With the coming of the crisis in my country, many people started to raise chickens in their backyards, but not everyone has been able to install fences to protect them, so the opossums (among other small predators like rats, or the snakes which the opossums happen to eat, too) eat the young; they also steal fruit, rummage through garbage and make small messes in yards and gardens, so no doubt some people really hate them. In fact, many still believe that they are giant rats; poor opossums are lucky to be a bit ugly and have those defense mechanisms that you tell us about, because surely their luck would be even worse if people were not a bit afraid of them.

Here in my town, there is an opossum who visits a tobacco factory frequently. The employees give him food and water and let him do his "pest control" work; they treat him with affection but from a distance, lol, because he's really not pretty.

Thanks for sharing your knowledege and for a good read :)

The best part of Hive is that we get to read about each other's experience. It seems opossums do cause mischief in some places. Here, that is not the case, not at my house anyway. Once we discovered they don't bother the cats we were amused. The dogs do not like them but bark from a distance. An opossum has nonchalantly lounged on the shed roof at times while the dogs barked frantically. Very funny.

Thanks for that delightful comment.

Great post, with detailed and fun information. We do see possums in our woods here in Michigan, and based on what you mentioned about the cold, they probably have a really hard time during our cold winters. I always have to make sure my dogs don't run after them, they're an easy prey

Thank you for saving them from the dogs. It would be terrible if the dogs ever caught them. It's funny...these critters live to eat. That's all they seem to do is eat and sleep. They don't even form relationships.

Nature offers us many curiosities, doesn't it?

I don't care for opossums. They're fugly. But, don't harbor animosity towards them. My only trouble with them has been when they make their way into the attic. They make a mess of the insulation and leave their waste. They are relatively easy to catch in a cage when put near a wall with some fruit. Our animal control department will come pick them up and drop them off somewhere out of town. I learned that if they nest in your attic, you can usually count on having to catch both the male and female. So, you have to set the trap a couple times.

Thank you for commenting.
I'm surprised to hear you find a male and female together, or almost together. They are solitary. Female goes into estrus almost spontaneously and after they mate, the male is supposed to move on. You are smart to call animal control. I've read that in many places it is illegal to relocate the opossum by yourself.

I'm glad you don't harbor animosity. I think they are cute, but recognize they are wild and respect that. Still, I kind of like them :)

I had two attic invasions. Both times I caught two opossums. Although, to be honest, I couldn't tell you if they were male or female. They would hiss at me from the trap, so I didn't attempt to investigate.

I know a girl who thinks they're cute too. They're just not my cup of tea.

Wow, just, WOW. Incredible research based post, totally worth the read, just what in the Mell I have being doing for a lot of time, They are not agresive towards humans?

I will continuate to keep my distance when I see one, but several times on my life I almost ran from them because of their hissing and teeth xD

Love the post, the research feels fresh and properly based, thank you for your job :)

Thank you! Your comment is gratifying. I enjoyed doing the research and always try to verify everything I assert so that readers can rely on it. Of course, the information is only as good as the sources.

Opossums are not aggressive but will bite if we are aggressive toward them. They do have those teeth :))

But I could have feed the local opossums like ten times if i trowed my biological wastes sooner, I ended up waiting until it rot several times because the opossums hissed at me when I tried to get close to the garbage disposal area. If I knew that before, I would have atleast try to place the garbage bag on the trash and the leftover food on the "cleaner area" for these lovely animals.

I have being doing it wrong for a long while haha, if they are not actively agresive, then I can just ignore them by keeping distance, and not have to wait until the food goes bad, and they could eat more fresh food.

Anyways, thank you for your tip, I din't saw it coming at all. Greetings :)

Just be careful and listen to the hiss. They are wild animals and all wild animals are unpredictable. If they hiss at me, I move away.

(you are welcome)

I will, at least they will get the fresh food instead, its worth a try <3

Thank you! See you on other time :)

Seems they have many different faces ,and mostly look like a bat

There are so many different're right, many faces.

A bat? Maybe :))

Thank you for reading and commenting.

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