Misunderstood: The Opossum

In this series we will introduce you to a few animals that are feared or even hated for no reason other than they are misunderstood. We’ll begin with the opossum.

What images come to mind when you hear about an opossum? Beady eyes, a mouth full of teeth, or rabies? You’re not alone. These are some of the images that the opossum conjures up for many. Opossums, however, play an important role in our ecosystem. Let’s take a look at some of their unique characteristics that may have you seeing opossums in a different light.

There Can Be Only One

The opossum is North America’s only marsupial, meaning their young are carried in a pouch—like a kangaroo! And like their Australian cousins, baby opossums are called joeys; adult male opossums are called jacks, while female opossums are called jills. After a brief gestation period of about 12 days, joeys crawl into the mother’s pouch to nurse, where they remain for about seven weeks before venturing out into the world.7

Tick Talk

A single opossum can eat up to 5,000 ticks in a year, yet they don’t contract or carry Lyme disease.3 These fastidious groomers will swallow the ticks, including the black-legged ticks that spread Lyme disease.3 That’s great news for humans.

The World is a Buffet

Opossums are omnivores, which means, when it comes to diet, anything goes! On the menu are eggs, insects, garden snails and slugs, small rodents, fruits, nuts, and even dead animals—bones and all. They are nature’s pest control and cleanup crew! As a plus, they also disperse the seeds of the wild berries and other fruits they consume.5

Immunity Idol

That’s not all they eat though. Opossums also eat rattlesnakes!2 In fact, they are able to survive rattlesnake and other venomous snake bites. Now that’s some superpower they’ve developed. So much so that scientists are studying a peptide found in opossum blood in hopes of developing a universal antivenom for humans.1 But wait, there’s more. Opossums are also immune to honeybee stings, scorpion stings, and toxins such as botulism.2 Most noteworthy, though, is their resistance to rabies.

Any mammal can carry or contract rabies, but opossums are amazingly resistant to the virus. This may be due to their lower body temperature which affects the virus’s ability to survive.4 It might surprise you that the Texas Department of State Health Services has confirmed only one case of rabies in a wild opossum in the past 13 years.6 People frequently mistake the open-mouth hissing and drooling behavior of opossums as a sign of rabies, but that’s part of their bluff to scare off attackers.8 When this bluff tactic fails, an opossum will feign death, which can go on for hours.

All Thumbs & Tail

Did you know that opossums are the only mammals aside from primates to have opposable “thumbs”? The opposable thumb is on their back paws, and it’s a great asset for this climbing critter. As is their prehensile (gripping) tail. Opossums use their tail for hanging from tree branches for short periods,7 grasping, and wrapping around objects while climbing.2 They’ve even been seen carrying bundles of grasses and other nesting materials wrapped in their tail.

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The Eyes Have It

Opossums don’t have black eyes, they just appear black because the pupil is extremely dilated. That is most likely an adaptation to their nocturnal habits.

What should you do when you encounter an opossum in your yard? According to the Opossum Society of the United States, the answer is nothing. Watch and enjoy from a distance as the opossum moves along on its foraging route. So whether you call them opossum or possum, there’s one more thing you should know, this little vacuum of a creature is more friend than foe.

References and More Information

1Bittel J. 2015 Mar 23. Opossums could hold the key to saving snakebite victims. National Geographic. [accessed 2016 Oct 25]. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/150323-opossums-snakes-snakebites-venom-health-world-science/

2Lipske M. 2015 Mar 30. Give opossums a break. National Wildlife. [accessed 2016 Oct 10]. https://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/2015/Opossums.aspx

3Miller R. 2014 Apr 18. Opossums—Killers of ticks. The News-Times. [accessed 2016 Oct 25]. http://www.newstimes.com/news/article/robert-miller-opossums-killers-of-ticks-5413872.php

4Opossum Society of the United States. 2014 Jan 19. Opossum FAQ. [accessed 2016 Oct 25]. http://opossumsocietyus.org/faq-opossum/

5Siciliano Martina L. 2013. Didelphis virginiana. Animal Diversity Web. [accessed 2016 Oct 25]. http://animaldiversity.org/site/accounts/information/didelphis_virginiana.html

6Texas Department of State Health Services. Rabies. 2016 Feb 12. [accessed 2016 Oct 25]. https://www.dshs.texas.gov/idcu/disease/rabies/information/

7Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). [accessed 2016 Oct 25]. http://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/oposum/

8Humane Society of the United States. 2013 Sep 26. Understanding Rabies. [accessed 2016 Oct 25]. http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/facts/rabies.html

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