One of the world’s most primitive mammals is the opossum. They have existed relatively unchanged for nearly 90 million years and are the only marsupials (pouched mammals) that live in the United States. They are also found in Australia and South America.
The opossum’s success is partially due to its lack of specialized physical structure and its eating habits. This allows them to thrive in many different environments. As an omnivore and scavenger feeder, opossums eat smaller animals, plants and scraps. Some of its favorite foods are insects, mice, birds, snakes, berries, nuts, grains. They are know to scavenge through the occasional garbage bin and feed on dead animals. Opossums have an incredible immune system, which allows them to eat just about anything. In fact, they can survive a venomous bite from copperheads, cottonmouths and rattlesnakes.
Opossums are about half the size of the average house cat. Adults are between 24 to 32 inches long with a tail that extends nearly 13 inches. They weigh 4 to 12 pounds. The males are usually larger and heavier than females, but their appearance is identical. Opossums have a cone-shaped head and a pointed snout that contains 50 teeth, more teeth than any other mammal in North America. They have dark beady eyes, round ears and a rat-like tail. Their legs and feet are black or dark brown and their fur is a pale gray. This mammal lives for a relatively short period of time, 2-3 years in the wild or in captivity. The female may give birth to 18 to 22 babies but usually only 8 to 10 make it to her pouch to feed and survive.
To escape a predator, opossums have several defense mechanisms. They can hide or climb a tree, gripping with their opposable thumbs and balancing with their tail. They can change their generally passive demeanor into aggressive behavior by growling, hissing or clicking their teeth. Their unique defensive tactic is to “play dead.” When the opossum fears death, it can collapse into a motionless state. Its eyes and mouth will remain open, its tongue will hang out and its breathing will become shallow. Sometimes the opossum will even release a musky, decay scent. Predators include foxes, coyotes, bobcats, dogs, hawks, owls and snakes. Many opossums are killed by cars as they cross a street or eat other road-killed animals. They are hunted for their fur and meat.
Opossums live in hidden, dark areas, beneath porches, in hollow logs or in abandoned burrows of other animals. They are mostly nocturnal. Opossums have poor eye sight but a keen sense of smell and touch, which allows them to hunt successfully in the dark.