From the Missouri Conservationist Magazine
November 2016 Issue

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Opossum
Danny Brown

Plants & Animals

Opossum

An opossum (Didelphis virginiana) approached my photography hide just as I finished a candy bar for breakfast. I watched through my lens as it closed the distance of about 100 yards, stopping every few seconds, its pinkish nose in the air, to pinpoint my location. As with other animals I’ve photographed, especially skunks, I fretted that it might soon be in my lap.

Fortunately, the gray-and-white mammal with its slender snout, paper ears, and glossy black eyes stopped less than a foot short of my position and waited for the source of food to reveal itself. A twitch of my boot and a softly spoken “shoo” sent it along its way.

Opossums are somewhat misunderstood because of their appearance, including a toothy, drooling snarl, coarse fur, and an unattractive rat-like tail. When approached, opossums typically retreat at a fast walk, in search of cover or a tree to climb. If approached too closely, opossums may go into shock and appear dead. Of course, this is where the phrase “playing

 possum” originated.

Opossums are found throughout Missouri in a variety of habitats, but they prefer wooded areas, especially near streams. They make their homes in shelters such as fallen logs, hollow trees, and brush piles. Opossums typically line their nests with leaves and grass. I’ve been fortunate to observe one carrying a bundle of leaves in a loop formed with its tail. According to The Wild Mammals of Missouri, an opossum can transfer 12 mouthfuls of leaves to its tail for transport to its nest.

Opossums eat a variety of foods but prefer animal matter, including many different insects and carrion of rabbits, squirrels, mice, and other animals. Reptiles, amphibians, crayfish, birds and bird eggs, and earthworms are also eaten. Fruits are eaten particularly in fall and early winter and include pokeberry, grapes, persimmons, pawpaws, and more. Opossums are also known to scavenge food from unsecured garbage cans and will occasionally raid a chicken yard. In my experience, opossums are far less injurious to poultry than raccoons.

Opossums are Missouri’s only marsupials, or pouched mammals. Females possess a fur-lined pouch on the belly where incompletely formed young are carried as they develop. As the young mature, they eventually leave the pouch but continue to hitch a ride on mama by holding on to the coarse hairs of her neck and back. Young are weaned by May and a second litter is sometimes raised after that. I recently spotted a mother opossum with a single, large youngster riding on her back. Perhaps it was the runt of the litter and the last to go off on its own.

The opossum is a common commercial furbearer in Missouri, and it is also hunted for its flesh. Opossums are typically pursued at night by hunters with hounds, similar to raccoon hunting, and baked opossum is considered a delicacy by some. Beneficial in many ways, and rarely harmful, the opossum is a stalwart contributor to Missouri’s ecosystem.

—Story and photograph by Danny Brown

We help people discover nature through our online Field Guide.

Visit mdc.mo.gov/field-guide to learn more about Missouri’s plants and animals.

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This Issue's Staff:

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler