The Misunderstood Marsupial

Gentle opossums can bring wonderful benefits to your property, especially when it comes to eating ticks and other pests.

Photo by Getty Images/quadxeon

My first up-close encounter with an opossum took place years ago, when I went to get feed for our horses one evening. I was used to seeing these hairy, grayish animals flattened on the road, their lives abruptly and unceremoniously ended while out on a nightly prowl, but I was not expecting to see an 18-inch-long freeloader wedged under the feed bin. I walked over for a closer look, which prompted a couple of low hisses, but it didn’t move. The poor animal was probably as surprised to see me as I was to see it. I’d unknowingly put out the opossum welcome mat when I forgot to close the feed room door that morning.

About the size of a large house cat, the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is North America’s only marsupial — a mammal that carries and nurses its young in a pouch. One of Earth’s oldest surviving mammals, the opossum has been around for at least 65 million years, having first appeared in North America about the time dinosaurs went extinct. With little need to evolve in order to survive, the modern-day opossum is somewhat of a living fossil, having retained many of the features of the earliest known marsupials.

The critter received its unusual name in 1608 from Captain John Smith, one of the British settlers of Jamestown, Virginia. The colonists traded with the Algonquin tribes, and the opossum got its name from their word apasum, meaning “white animal.” These mammals are found in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and along the West Coast, as well as in Mexico, Central America, and British Columbia. In North America, they’re typically referred to as the North American opossum, or merely “possum.”

Opossum Particulars

These habitat generalists can live in a wide range of settings, including wooded areas, open fields, farmland, parks, and even in suburbs and cities, most often near water. They take shelter in the abandoned burrows of other animals, as well as in hollow trees, in brush and rock piles, under porches and storage sheds, in crawl spaces, and occasionally in attics and garages, if they can gain access.

They’re excellent climbers because of their opposable “thumbs,” which are actually clawless digits on their rear feet (so, technically, they’re toes). This adaptation helps them flee up trees, and also allows them to scale wood or wire fences, gutters, and more. Their prehensile tails are similar to a monkey’s, and they use them to grasp and wrap around things, such as tree limbs.

7/31/2019 11:52:14 PM

Thank you so much for setting the record straight on these sweet things. I've raised four baby possums over the years and feed them daily in my backyard. I also have a family of raccoons and a family of skunks that live here. They all get along just fine and they don't bother the feral cats that I also feed. I continue to tell people that these little guys are harmless and I hope I'm making a dent in public opinion. Thanks for an interesting and informative article. Beth Essington, Reseda, CA

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