Prehistoric throwback: The opossum

Steve Roark - Tri-State Outside

The opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is not held in high esteem, generally thought to be an ugly little creature found dead along the road. But it is in fact one of the more unique animals in North America, being a prehistoric throwback. Their ancestors lived when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and they haven’t changed much in all this time.

Interesting features of the opossum include a hairless, prehensile tale adapted for climbing and grasping, and feet that all have opposable big toes used for gripping. They have a long snout that contains 50 teeth, twice as many as most other animals.

Opossums are the only North American animals that are marsupials, meaning the female has a pouch similar to a kangaroo’s for raising her young. Baby opossums are born only 13 days after fertilization and are about the size of a honeybee. Immediately after birth they crawl up the mother’s belly to her pouch, which they probably locate by scent. The babies crawl into the pouch where the nipples are, and latch onto one with their mouths. The young ones stay inside the pouch and feed for about two months, at which time they are about 2 inches long, covered with fur and have their eyes open. They will then crawl out and start riding on mom’s back.

The opossum has the well-known habit of faking death, which rarely occurs in the wild. When an opossum is in danger, it will first hiss, growl and lunge at an assailant or try to escape by running or climbing a tree. If all else fails, the animal instinctively falls down on its side with its mouth open. It may also drool, defecate and give off a bad smell. In short, it makes itself very unappetizing to a predator. This state may last a few minutes or several hours, but they snap out of it as fast as they fell into it. The action is an instinctive response, so the animal is not consciously controlling what happens. It cannot “play possum” at will.

Some might think playing dead is a bad move because it leaves the opossum wide open to being eaten. But the movement of prey is what stimulates most predators to attack and kill. If the prey isn’t moving before the kill, they tend to lose interest.

Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.

Steve Roark

Tri-State Outside

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