Often misunderstood, opossums play a crucial role in our ecosystem. As experts in environmental biology, we're excited to share accurate and engaging information on these unique marsupials. Our list of top opossum facts will help you understand why these creatures deserve our respect.
Many people view opossums as nuisances, but they significantly benefit the environment around them. For example, they control tick populations and are immune to snake venom. They are also widely known for playing dead, where the idiom "playing possum" comes from.
Related: Already an expert on this O marsupial? Check out our list of animals starting with O.
We can call opossums many names, such as possums, Virginia opossums, and tlacuache. Their name originates from the Algonquian word "apasum," meaning "white animal." It is likely referring to the creature's pale face and grayish-white fur.
Furthermore, differentiating "opossum" from"possum" is crucial since they are distinct species. Hailing from Australia and New Guinea, possums share close ties with kangaroos and koalas. On the other hand, opossums are dominant in North America and South America.
When opossums face a threat, they instinctively play dead, or "play possum," to protect themselves. But this is only an involuntary reaction. The animal's body turns stiff, and its mouth opens. Defecation and urination also occur during the process. This defense mechanism aims to deter predators from eating them1.
The length of this defensive state can vary, sometimes lasting for hours. During this period, the opossum's heart rate and breathing slow down, making it appear even more convincingly dead.
This clever tactic takes advantage of many predators' preference for fresh prey rather than dead animals. Once the danger has passed, opossums regain consciousness and can safely continue.
Opossums possess more teeth than any other North American mammal. The Virginia opossum, for instance, has 50 teeth. Meanwhile, other wild mammals like bears, coyotes, and foxes have 42 teeth. This wide array of teeth enables opossums to consume various food sources efficiently, showcasing their impressive adaptability.
Each type of tooth serves a specific purpose. The small incisors help cut and grab food, while the slender and curved canines capture prey. And finally, the premolars and molars are small and sharp, perfect for grinding meals.
Opossums use their teeth not only for their diverse diet but also for self-defense. When faced with a potential threat, they may hiss and show their teeth in a defensive stance. (Like feral cats!)
Opossums also have opposable thumbs, a feature usually associated with humans and primates. These specialized digits, called hallux, are on each hind foot and are set apart from the other toes2.
While the hallux shares some similarities with human and primate thumbs, it also has distinct characteristics. For example, the hallux is clawless, unlike the opossum's other toes. This lack of a claw lets opossums securely grip tree branches or other surfaces without leaving noticeable marks.
Furthermore, the hallux's dexterity allows opossums to multitask. They can hold onto a branch with their hind feet while using their forelimbs for grooming or feeding.
Related: For more information on primates, check out our monkey facts.
Opossums have prehensile tails that they treat as another appendage. Like a rat's tail, it is hairless and long. They coil it around tree limbs and branches to navigate trees. It provides balance and stability. It also allows them to suspend when climbing or taking a break among the branches.
In addition, opossums use their tails for practical purposes. They can wrap their tails around nesting materials like twigs, leaves, and small branches, transporting them efficiently back to their dens.
As North America's only marsupial, opossums exhibit adaptability to diverse habitats. Virginia opossums, for example, can live in deciduous forests, open woods, and even on farmlands.
They are also exceptional climbers, enabling them to access different habitats and find shelter in trees. This skill is handy when seeking habitats near water sources, such as rivers, streams, and ponds.
In addition to natural settings, opossums also choose to live in urban and suburban areas. They make homes in parks, yards, and gardens within cities and towns. They usually find shelter in sheds, garages, and attics.
Related: Want to know more about another urban dweller? Visit our raccoon facts.
Opossums eat a variety of food sources, such as fruits, vegetables, small mammals, and carrion.
They also regulate insect populations by consuming beetles, ants, and slugs, maintaining ecological balance. Their powerful immune system also allows them to ingest harmful substances with minimal adverse effects. We will elaborate this further on another opossum fact below.
In addition to their regular diet, these animals may consume human or pet food (like cat food) and scraps in garbage cans. Unfortunately, this behavior can create a nuisance and lead to scattered trash.
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The complex reproductive system of opossums, specifically the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), is a marvel of nature. Male opossums have evolved a two-headed penis to accommodate the unique anatomy of female opossums. This forked structure allows sperm into the female's separate uteri, increasing the chances of fertilization.
As equally impressive as their male counterparts, female opossums possess two uteri and three genital canals (often called vaginas). The central canal functions as the birth canal for underdeveloped offspring. It also guides the baby opossums to the mother's pouch, where they continue growing.
A female opossum carries its babies for 12-14 days before giving birth to its offspring. These newborns, called joeys (just like baby kangaroos), are born incredibly tiny and underdeveloped, leaving them reliant on their mother's pouch, or marsupium, for survival.
At birth, they are blind, hairless, and possess underdeveloped limbs, emphasizing the importance of the protection provided by their mother's pouch during their early life.
The size of newborn joeys is comparable to that of a honeybee, measuring only about half an inch long and weighing a mere 0.005 ounces. A mother opossum can give birth to as many as 20 joeys in a single delivery. However, due to limited space and resources within the pouch, only around half of them will survive.
As they mature, a baby opossum stays in the pouch for about three months, occasionally emerging to explore its surroundings. After leaving the pouch, the young ones still depend on their mother for food until they become fully independent, which usually takes four to five months.
Opossums, with an average lifespan of just 2 to 4 years in the wild, rely on an efficient reproductive system to ensure their species' survival. One intriguing adaptation is their unique arrangement of 13 nipples, with 12 surrounding a central nipple. This feature allows mother opossums to nurse multiple joeys at once, providing sufficient nourishment even in large litters.
Since opossums can produce several litters of up to 20 joeys yearly, this nursing system plays a critical role in young opossums' survival. Joeys face fierce competition for survival, as not all of them reach adulthood.
By offering ample nursing opportunities, mother opossums increase their offspring's chances of survival, counteracting their high mortality rate. Moreover, opossum milk, rich in protein and fat, promotes rapid growth and development of a baby opossum.
Despite being known as terrestrial and tree-dwelling creatures, opossums also love the water. They often inhabit areas close to wetlands, swamps, and marshes, providing them with a consistent water supply and access to food sources. This preference for water-rich environments leads them to storm drains and retention ponds in suburban and urban areas.
Their love for aquatic surroundings has allowed them to develop impressive swimming abilities. When facing danger or hunting for food, opossums dive into the water, holding their breath for several minutes if needed.
Using a dog-paddle motion, they propel themselves efficiently through the water. At the same time, their prehensile tails act as a rudder to maintain balance and steer their course. Additionally, their water-resistant fur and sensitive whiskers help keep them dry and warm during swimming.
The following opossum facts will increase your respect for these marsupials.
Opposums' immunity to snake venom comes from a peptide in their blood called the lethal toxin-neutralizing factor (LTNF). LTNF has the incredible ability to bind to and neutralize toxins in the venom of various snake species, such as rattlesnakes. This immunity has likely evolved due to frequent encounters with venomous snakes in their native habitats, giving them a survival advantage.
Related: If you want to know more about the slithering creatures, read our snake facts next.
Opossums are fastidious groomers that eat ticks. As they keep themselves clean and healthy, they also help regulate tick populations in their habitat. The National Wildlife Federation says a single opossum can consume 5,000 ticks in just one season. That's why they are known for their tick control abilities, which curb the spread of tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease.
Opossums are less likely to carry rabies than other marsupials. Their body temperature ranges from 94 to 97°F and is cooler than most mammals. Their temperature creates a less favorable environment for the rabies virus to thrive. On top of that, opossums boast a highly efficient immune system, which helps them fend off various infections, including rabies.
While it's uncommon to encounter a rabid opossum, caution is still essential when interacting with these wild animals. Maintaining a safe distance from them can minimize the risk of infection from rabies and other diseases that opossums might carry. If an opossum happens to bite or scratch you, immediately seek medical attention and inform local animal control.
The IUCN Red List classified the opossums as least concerning, indicating that their populations are stable. Their adaptability and rapid reproduction rate contribute to this conservation status. Although opossums are not facing imminent danger, they still encounter challenges that may affect their long-term survival.
Habitat loss, caused by deforestation, agricultural expansion, and urbanization, poses a significant problem. These potentially make it difficult for opossums to find adequate shelter and food resources.
Furthermore, human interference, such as vehicle collisions, trapping, and poisoning, presents another substantial threat to these marsupials. Monitoring these factors remains essential for the continued prosperity of opossum populations.
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Gabrielsen, G. W., & Smith, E. N. (1985). Physiological responses associated with feigned death in the American opossum. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 123(4), 393–398.
Krause, W., & Krause, W. (2004). The Opossum: Its Amazing Story. Google Books.
Isabela is a determined millennial passionate about continuously seeking out ways to make an impact. With a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering with honors, Isabela’s research expertise and interest in artistic works, coupled with a creative mindset, offers readers a fresh take on different environmental, social, and personal development topics.
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