The only marsupial native to the North American continent, this nocturnal animal lives as a scavenger, eating anything it can find, both vegetation and meat. In the southern United States, opossums once were hunted for food by residents of rural areas. While this practice still continues in some areas, it is far less prevalent than it once was. However, in countries like Mexico, Dominica, Grenada, and Trinidad the meat of the opossum is considered a delicacy. More than 60 species of opossum are recorded, but the most common is the Virginia Opossum from the United States and Canada.
1. Scientific & Common Names
4. Present Status
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Infraclass - Marsupialia
Family - Didelphidae
Subfamily - Didelphinae
Genus - Didelphis
Species - D. virginiana
Common Names - Opossum, 'Possum, Virginia Opossum
Opossums are usually about the size of a large housecat, weighing 9 to 13 pounds. They have short legs and squatty bodies covered with gray, black or brownish fur with white patches typically on the face and underside of the body. Opossums have long, sharp claws and a hairless, prehensile tail that can be used as an extra hand when climbing. As marsupials, the females have pouches in which they raise their young.
Opossums reach puberty around a year of age. Male and female possums mate in early spring and the female gives birth a few weeks later. She can have up to 25 babies, but most of them will not survive. Opossum babies are tiny at birth and crawl into the mother's pouch after birth where they will suckle and grow for about 10 weeks. Sometimes opossums will have a second litter later in the summer after the first litter has been weaned.
Opossums are slow and solitary, very seldom leaving their dens during the day. They are quite adept at climbing trees and will range up to two miles from their homes in search of food. During the winter, opossums do not hibernate; however, they do stay in their dens during the cold weather. When threatened, opossums will run, growl, urinate and defecate. When cornered, an opossum will roll over and "play dead," going completely limp with its eyes closed. Many predators will believe that the animal is already dead and leave it alone. When the danger is past, the opossum will get up as if nothing had ever happened.
In 1608, when settlers from England reached North America, their captain, John Smith, named this large, rat-like creature. He took his name from the Algonquin word for this animal, "apasum," meaning "white animal." The opossum has been on Earth for around 70 million years and is one of the oldest mammals.
The opossum lives all over North America, in Mexico, Central America, Australia, and certain islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Their flexible diet and adaptability allow them to live in a wide variety of habitats and climates.