The Virginia opossum is a misunderstood animal. It tends to be the brunt of jokes and is used in derogatory statements. I am guilty of this myself. For example, in my new novel, Bridgers 3, one of the bridgers is being warned not to try something (I can't give away too many details), because trying this thing will "steal away your youth’s vigor like possums steal eggs." And in an upcoming short story, my main character complains that he doesn't fit in, stating: "To use a local phrase, at these events I was like a possum in a pigpen—I didn’t belong, and I feared getting shot if I were discovered."
These statements, like those many other people use, are not very complimentary to opossums. So today I plan to reveal the awesome side to these creatures.
So, what the heck is a Virginia Opossum?
The Virginia opossum is often called the North American opossum, mainly to distinguish it from opossums that live in South America. The Virginia opossum is unique because it's the only marsupial that lives in North America. It is a marsupial mammal about the size of a domestic house cat, and it has a bare, prehensile tail.
It is important to point out the difference between the Opossums of South and North America and the Possums of Australia and surrounding islands.
Opossums are in the marsupial order, Didelphimorphia. There are about 103 species, and they originated in South America.
Possums are in the marsupial order, Diprotodontia, the same order that includes kangaroos, koalas, wombats, and others. There are about forty species of possums that live in Australia, New Guinea, and others islands in the South Pacific.
So, the Virginia opossum is not closely related to the possums of Australia. There is an interesting story of why they have similar names: In 1610, Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony in Virginia wrote in A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia: “There are … Apossouns, in shape like to pigges.” (he was comparing them to domestic pigs, which back then had much more fur than they do today). He got this word, apossouns, from the local tribe of Native Americans (it meant "white beast"). So the name evolved into opossum. Then, in the late 1700s, Sir Joseph Banks, a naturalist who went with Captain James Cook to Australia, saw a creature (a ringtail possum) and remarked that it resembled the opossums of North America. The name he gave them was shortened to possum.
So... these two similar names often confuse people, making them think that the two groups of mammals are closely related. But they aren't.
Amazing facts about Virginia Opossums
Virginia opossums are the only marsupials in North America. Although many species of opossums live in South America, the Virginia opossum has managed to migrate all the way up into Central America, Mexico, and the eastern half of the United States. And it is still steadily expanding its range. This is due to global warming causing more northerly areas to have fewer heavy snow storms.
Like many other Marsupials, Virginia opossums give birth to very small babies, which then move to the mother's pouch where they will develop until they can move around and feed on their own. The newborns, usually about eight of them, are only the size of a navy bean. Once in the mother's pouch, though, they attach to a nipple and stay in that spot until they are too large to fit in the pouch. At that point they move out of the pouch and cling to the mother's fur, riding around with her. And at some point, they get too big to even do that.
Okay, I have to tell a brief story. When I was a kid (about 12) growing up in Kansas (Midwest U.S.), a good friend and I were fascinated by animals, including opossums. We managed to catch an opossum in a live trap, and we put it into a large cage my friend's dad helped us build in the corner of his garage. Well, before long it became apparent that the opossum was a female. Young opossums that were getting too big to fit in the pouch moved out and began riding around on her back. When the young got to be the size of hamsters, we began handling them. When they got to be the size of guinea pigs, we began letting them ride around on our shoulders as we walked around town. One time, while on a walk with young opossums, we decided we were hungry and walked into a McDonald's restaurant. We went to the counter, ordered our food, paid, and picked up our food. Astoundingly, no one in the restaurant, including the girl who took our order, even noticed that we had opossums along for the ride on our shoulders.
Opossums defend themselves in just about every way except for actual fighting. When threatened, sometimes they will run. Other times they will hiss, growl, or even belch. They will show their teeth. They with urinate, and they will even poop to scare you away. Their most famous behavior, though, is to play opossum. Playing opossum is a real thing. The term refers to pretending to be dead. And they are good at it. They will roll onto their side and freeze. Drool will drip from their mouth and their breathing slows down. They actually go into a coma-like state, which can last up to four hours! When opossums do this, a foul-smelling green liquid seeps from their anus. This behavior, along with the smell, is known to sometimes make larger animals leave them alone.
Check out this video of an opossum playing dead.
Opossums have opposable thumbs. Well, actually this is on their back feet, so I suppose they are really opposable toes. But this arrangement helps them cling to tree limbs. Opossums are excellent climbers.
Opossums have an unusually short life span for an animal of their size. In the wild, they typically live only two years or less. Why? It is thought that this ultra-fast aging characteristic is due to opossums having few defenses against predators. Therefore, since they don't live long anyway, their bodies have not evolved the biochemical methods to live more than a few years. This might seem hard to believe, but to support this hypothesis, there is a population of opossums that have lived on an island off the coast of Georgia (U.S.) for thousands of years in the absence of predators. These opossums have a natural lifespan 50% longer than mainland opossums.
Opossums sometimes play a role in pop culture. The Pogo comic strip, created by Walt Kelly, began running in American newspapers in 1948. Pogo was a seemingly simple opossum living in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. But he tended to make deeply philosophical comments about politics and the state of the world.
And... one more. Heidi was a cross-eyed opossum donated to Germany's Leipzig Zoo in 2010. The opossum quickly became an international sensation, with 300,000 followers on Facebook. Heidi even inspired a series of YouTube songs. But the pinnacle of this opossum's fame came when she was given the task of choosing the oscar winners for the Academy Awards on the late night show, Jimmy Kimmel Live. Heidi died in 2011 (remember, opossums don't live long). By the way, experts believed that Heidi's crossed-eyed condition was due to fatty deposits behind her eyes, which did not affect her health in any other way.
So, the Virginia opossum deserves a place in the M.A.H.O.F. (Majestic Animal Hall of Fame).
FUN FACT: The word majestic is an adjective for possessing majesty (of lofty dignity or imposing aspect; stately; grand). The word originated in about 1600. Other synonyms for majestic are kingly, splendid, magnificent, and noble. Perhaps you don't consider an opossum to be kingly, but that's beside the point. You have to admit they're awesome, and majestic is another way to say awesome!
Everyone needs a creative outlet. That's why I write.