Feb 10 2011


Published by at 7:30 am under Mammals

Last week groundhogs had their day.  This week possums are vying for the spotlight.

Possums have come up five times in the last seven days and the more I've looked into them, the more intrigued I've become.  Did you know that....?

  • Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana) are North America's only marsupial.
  • Their ancestors were from South America but they split from them during the Cretaceous (age of the dinosaurs) and started moving north.  They are still moving north and have now reached southern Canada.
  • Possums are the size of a large housecat with a pointed snout, shaggy fur and a naked prehensile (grasping) tail.  This one looks so cute because his ugliest features are not accentuated in his portrait.  It helps that he didn't smile for the camera.
  • Possums have 50 teeth in their little mouths and look especially grisly when they smile.  (Adult humans have 32 teeth.)
  • They often smile when they're afraid and always smile when they "play possum" in which they pretend to be dead by rolling over, drolling with an ugly smile, tongue hanging out, eyes closed and a slowed heartbeat.  They can be catatonic like this for four to six hours!
  • Possums will eat just about anything and become ill if they don't have an extremely diverse diet.
  • They are prolific.  The female's pouch has 13 nipples for up to 13 live young.  This makes up for their survival disadvantages which are...
  • Possums have very low intelligence, poor eyesight (nearsighted), poor hearing and a slow bumbling gait.  Any possum who decides to eat roadkill easily becomes roadkill himself.
  • Possums are normally nocturnal but in times of short food supply you may see them foraging during the day.  That's when Cris Hamilton found this one on her deck eating fallen bird seed.
  • Their thin ears and naked tail are especially prone to frostbite.  Joan Silagy saw a frostbitten possum at Blue Marsh last week.
  • Possums can live well in the city.  Last Saturday night I saw a one on my city street just after hearing how possums invaded someone's home (inside the walls!) in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  That double-whammy started my possum streak.
  • Virginia opossums live only about two years in the wild because they face so many predators and the challenge of winter.  The ARL Wildlife Rehabilitation Center has a possum missing an ear and half its tail because a dog attacked it.  (See his thank-you card here which you receive after sponsoring him here.)
  • The possum's enemies expanded his range.  Southerners who liked possum stew took them to California for food during the Great Depression.

I could go on and on about possums but I'll leave you with this Possum Celebrity Moment:  A cross-eyed possum at the Leipzig Zoo has so captured the hearts of the German public that the zoo has had to improve her display so that more people can see her -- and she's not even on display yet!

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Famous?”

  1. Kate St. Johnon 10 Feb 2011 at 10:22 am

    p.s. The caretakers of the possum at the Leipzig Zoo think she may be cross-eyed because of poor diet during her early life in North Carolina. The diet may have caused fat deposits behind her eyes. Yet another reason why possums need to eat an extremely diverse diet.

  2. Nellie Curranon 10 Feb 2011 at 1:19 pm

    The possums in my area are out every now and then and like to eat cat food. I always know when they are eating because with all there teeth they make a lot of noise. They seems to get along with the feral cats that I take care of or at least give each other room to eat. The racoons are out too despite the cold. You know when they have been there because they leave a mess as they like to dip their paws in the water dish.

  3. Tom Maieron 10 Feb 2011 at 1:32 pm

    A grad student at UMass-Amherst worked with opossums, while I was working at the university; she studyed their habitat use and northwards movement. Many of the animals we observed in Massachusetts had ear & tail damage from frostbite.

    Her name is L. Leann Kanda (PhD 2005; advised by Todd Fuller and Paul Sievert): “Limitations to the northernmost distribution of Virginia Opossums.” She’s currently Assistant Professor at Ithaca College , NY.

  4. kat walterson 11 Feb 2011 at 7:54 am

    Kate, if the Leipzig zoo is in Germany, how did the opossum get there from North Carolina? I sure wouldn’t want to take a plane ride with a possum, unless he was playing possum!!!

  5. Kate St. Johnon 11 Feb 2011 at 10:11 am

    Yes, the Leipzig Zoo is in Germany. The news story says Heidi and her sibling(s) were found outside an animal shelter in North Carolina. I suspect she had been someone’s unauthorized pet & the person decided not to keep her any more. In the video she looks fat to me; I bet her owner didn’t feed her a varied diet. Anyway, from N.C. Heidi went to a Denmark zoo & is now promised to the Leipzig zoo where they are building a home for her.

  6. Jon 11 Feb 2011 at 2:34 pm

    My mom had a slightly unpleasant encounter with a possum a few summers ago. She was taking her dog (chocolate lab) out to go potty before she went to be (10:300-11:00) and the dog ran over to the middle of the yard and was looking and sniffing at something. After a minute my mom realized it was a possum and managed to get the dog back inside (I think the dog just wanted to make frineds with it). We have no idea where it came from or how it got in our back yard, but it did appear to have a broken leg. Not knowing what to do, my mom called the police and they came over. They said it was to late to call the animal shelter or pest control (remember, it’s almost 11:00 at night) and seeing it had a broken leg decided the best thing to do was put it out of its misery. I’ll spare you animal lovers the rest of the details, but lets just say it wasn’t quick.

  7. kat walterson 12 Feb 2011 at 7:56 am

    Thanks for solving that mystery for me! I couldn’t imagine how a fat, cross-eyed possom got from N.C. to Germany. Kate you are the best!!!

  8. Marge V.on 13 Feb 2011 at 7:34 pm

    We have had a possum quite often eating bird seed, etc. that has fallen out of the feeders in front yard (2 maple trees) and they don’t come out much during the day tho’, afraid of predators. They are not as cute as the one (VA) possum in the photo. We have a flap in breezeway which is between house and garage and one started to come into the breezeway last year. Luckily it changed its mind.

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