Awesome Opossums

By Matt Seek | February 1, 2013
From Xplor: February/March 2013

Opossums get no respect. Granted, they’re not the most beautiful creatures. Their waddling walk and habit of getting pancaked on highways might lead one to believe they’re dim-witted. The only time most people see an opossum is when they find one digging through garbage or trapped in a garage. But take a closer look at this curious critter, and you’ll find opossums are actually awesome.

A Face only a mother could love

Every day’s a bad hair day for an opossum. Their beady black eyes, scruffy gray fur, and scaly pink tails make them look like overgrown rats. Opossums, however, aren’t closely related to rats or any other rodent. Opossums are marsupials (mar-sue-pee-uhls), just like kangaroos and koalas. Marsupials raise their babies in a pouch, and in America, the only mammal packing a pouch is the opossum.

One reason opossums look scruffy is because they don’t have thick, sleek coats like many Missouri mammals. They aren’t able to put on much body fat, either, so they can’t go long without eating. This means winter can be rough for an opossum. They often lose toes and the tips of ears and tails to frostbite because those parts aren’t fur-covered.

Furry Fakers

Opossums usually scurry to safety if danger threatens. But when something catches an opossum by surprise, it bares its 50 teeth and hisses, trying to bluff its way out of danger.

If a predator refuses to back off, the opossum collapses, pretending to be dead. Its breathing slows. It slobbers, blows snot bubbles out its nose, and may even release a green fluid from its rear end that makes it smell worse that usual. Yuck! Most predators lose their appetite at this point and leave the opossum alone.

This behavior — called “playing possum” — is beyond an opossum’s control. It just happens, like when a human faints. Opossums can play dead from four minutes to four hours. Once the threat leaves, the opossum’s ears begin to twitch, and it wakes up a few minutes later.

Built for the High Life

An opossum’s tail is prehensile (pre-hensuhl), which means it can curl around things. Opossums can’t hang by their tails except for short periods, but they do wrap their tails around branches for balance.

Opossums have thumbs on their feet! These special toes, called halluxes, are used to hold onto branches when climbing. Although they’re not as nimble as squirrels — opossums plod rather than scamper — they’re at home in the trees.

Nature's Vacuum cleaners

Opossums are omnivores with a capital “O.” These living, breathing vacuum cleaners eat anything they can find, including nuts, fruits, insects, worms, frogs, snakes, birds, eggs, rodents — even garbage and dead animals.

Opossums will happily gobble dirt, greasy burger wrappers, and plastic snack cake packaging. They produce chemicals inside their bodies that keep them safe from many germs. They’re even immune to snake venom, so rattlesnakes and copperheads occasionally find themselves on the menu.

Drifty Gypsies

To an opossum, the world is an all-you-can-eat buffet. And when food is everywhere, it doesn’t matter where you sleep. Opossums wake shortly after sundown and wander about, shuffling and snuffling for food to snarf. When the sun begins to rise, they bed down wherever they wind up, often in a tree cavity, squirrel nest, hollow log, brush pile, abandoned groundhog den, or under a house. Opossums use their prehensile tails to gather leaves for a bed.

Life fast, die young

Opossums don’t live long. Threeyear- olds are rare; four-year-olds are almost unheard of. To make up for their short life spans, opossums don’t waste much time before they start having babies.

Opossums find a mate about seven months after they’re born. After a 12-day pregnancy — the shortest of any North American mammal — a mother opossum gives birth to six to 20 babies.

Pouch Potatoes

Newborn opossums are about the size of kidney beans — 10 could fit in a teaspoon. The babies crawl from under their mom’s tail and make their way toward her pouch. Although the distance is short, the newborns are naked, blind, deaf, and have just two working legs. For them, the journey is a life-or-death race to find a space in the pouch, and some never cross the finish line.

Once inside, each baby clamps down on a nipple — mama opossums usually have 13 arranged in a “U” — and don’t let go for nearly two months. While they nurse on mom’s milk, the babies grow to chipmunk size. The pouch is fur-lined — toasty! — and stretches as the babies get bigger. Mom can open the pouch to cool her babies when they’re hot or clamp the pouch shut to keep her babies dry when it’s wet.

Having a pouch allows mama opossums to stay mobile. They don’t have to return to a den or nest every day — they carry their den with them.

Mama Minivans

When the babies are about 2 months old, they crawl out of their fur-lined nursery. They’re still not able to survive on their own, so the mother opossum becomes a four-legged minivan. The youngsters ride atop her back, clinging to fur as she forages for food.

While riding, young opossums learn survival skills, such as what to eat (everything) and how to avoid predators. Eventually the youngsters become too heavy to hitch rides. By this time, though, they’re able to fend for themselves.


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This Issue's Staff

David Besenger
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Regina Knauer
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
Tim Smith
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White