The Virginia opossum is North America's only marsupial. A marsupial is an animal with a pouch, like a kangaroo or a koala. The opossum has been around for at least 70 million years and is one of Earth's oldest surviving mammals!
The opossum is about the size of a large house cat. It has a triangular head and a long pointed nose. It has grayish fur everywhere but on its ears, feet and tail. Its tail is prehensile. A prehensile tail is adapted for grasping and wrapping around things like tree limbs. The opossum can hang from its tail for a short time. Some people think opossums hang from their tails and sleep. They don't. Their tails aren't strong enough to hold them for that long!
The opossum has opposable hallux. A hallux is like a thumb. The opossum's "thumbs" are on its rear feet. The hallux helps it grasp branches when it climbs.
The opossum doesn't hibernate in the winter. It will often hole up during very cold weather because it runs the risk of getting frostbite on its hairless ears, tail and toes.
The Virginia opossum can be found in most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and on the West Coast. It is also found in Mexico, Central America and in British Columbia, Canada.
The Virginia opossum lives in a wide-variety of habitats including deciduous forests, open woods and farmland. It tends to prefer wet areas like marshes, swamps and streams.
The Virginia opossum is nocturnal and uses its keen sense of smell to locate food. It is omnivorous and eats just about anything, including lots of different plants and animals like fruits, insects, and other small animals. Sometimes, it eats garbage and carrion. Carrion is dead animals. Because so much carrion is roadkill, opossums are often killed by cars while looking for food on roadways.
An Virginia opossum female may have as many as 25 babies, but she usually will have between seven to eight. The reason opossums have so many babies to insure that some of them survive. Like most marsupials, opossums are very small when they are born - about the size of a navy bean.
The babies climb up the mother's fur and into her pouch where they find a teat. Some babies will not find their way to the pouch and will die. If they make it to the pouch, only babies who find one of the thirteen teats will survive. They will stay in the pouch and suckle for 55-60 days. Then they will move out of the pouch and spend another four to six weeks on their mother's back. In some parts of their range, females will have three litters a year.
The Virginia opossum has many behavioral adaptations it uses to survive. When threatened, it will exhibit behaviors like running, growling, belching, urinating and even defecating. Sometimes it will "play 'possum." and roll over, become stiff, drool, and its breathing will become slow and shallow. This coma-like state can last up to four hours Some predators will think the opossum is dead and go away!
The name 'opossum' was first used in western culture by Captain John Smith in 1608. It comes from the Algonquin name 'apasum', which means 'white animal.'