A critter that is very common in our area is the opossum (often also called possum, without the “o”). The opossum is the only marsupial in North America. Marsupials carry their babies (joeys) in a pouch after birth while they develop. Some familiar marsupial cousins would be the kangaroo and the koala bear in Australia. Unfortunately, opossums have gotten a bit of a bad reputation and are often referred to as “trash cats” and other derogatory terms. They actually play an important role in our ecosystem. Let’s dispel the myths about this misunderstood marsupial. Myth: Opossums spread disease. Fact: Opossums rarely carry or spread disease. In fact, opossums are largely immune to rabies and diseases common to other wild animals. Myth: Opossums are dirty. Fact: Opossums are very clean animals. They spend as much time grooming themselves as domestic house cats. Myth: Opossums are pests that damage structures, like your home or shed, to nest in. Fact: Opossums are nomadic, so they don’t infest or nest. They typically move locations every few days and will take advantage of any safe dry shelter they happen upon, including hollow logs, empty outdoor fireplaces, under a deck or spots created and left behind by other animals like raccoons. Myth: Opossums only eat trash. Fact: Well, if you leave your trash outside and accessible, any animal will get into it. Same thing goes for pet food left outside. Any wild animal will be interested in an easy meal. However, opossums typically eat fruit, insects, snails, slugs, rats, mice, frogs, fish and snakes – venomous ones too. Opossums are immune to nearly all snake venom with the exception of the coral snake. They eat copperheads, rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, to name a few. More Opossum Facts Here are a few more interesting facts that just might change your mind about the opossum:
- Opossums eat TICKS, and lots of them. An average adult opossum can eat between 2,000 to 4,000 ticks in a single week. And they don’t contract or carry Lyme disease – they’re immune to it.
- Opossums have opposable thumbs. In fact, only primates (including humans) and marsupials have opposable thumbs.
- Opossums have been around since the time of the dinosaurs.
- Opossums have prehensile tails and can carry bundles of grass or twigs using their tails. Their tails also help them with balance.
- When opossum joeys grow too large to fit comfortably in the mother’s pouch, they relocate and ride along on mom’s back until they are old enough to survive on their own.
- The name opossum comes from the Algonquin Native American word “apasam”, which means “white face”.
- Opossums are very good climbers and often will climb trees or fences to avoid predators or find a place to sleep.
Most of the time, opossums are more afraid of you than you are of them. They will hiss if they feel threatened or “play dead” which is actually a type of seizure. Remember, never handle wild animals – injured or otherwise. If you have an opossum causing a problem, please call Pee Dee Wildlife. Also, opossums that have been hit by cars may have joeys in their pouch, so if you see this unfortunate scenario happen, please let us know so a wildlife professional can check. Opossums serve a very important role in our area, controlling both tick and venomous snake populations. We hope you’ve gained a new appreciation for North America’s only marsupial and will share about this interesting critter with your friends and neighbors.