written by: Diana Cooper•edited by: Laurie Patsalides•updated: 8/16/2010
Learn about the opossum, an intelligent and fascinating animal with a pouch. Find interesting facts about their behavior, diet, and more.
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Although opossums look like a big rat, they are actually related to the koala and kangaroo. The opossum (also called possum) is the only marsupial (female with a pouch) in North America. They are about the size of a cat, have black to gray fur, and long, pointed noses (pink in color).
Opossums have many teeth, more than any other land mammal, and a prehensile tail, one that can grasp or hold. Their tail helps stabilize them as they climb but they are not used to hang from trees. The tail is not strong enough to support an adult's body (babies may hang temporarily).
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Opossums are most active at night. They are non-aggressive animals (although they may hiss or growl when frightened) that prefer to avoid confrontations and be left alone. They are non-destructive. In fact, opossums benefit the environment by keeping it clean and healthy. They eat roaches, rats, and dead animals. Many refer to them as "Nature's Little Sanitation Engineers".
When threatened by an animal it is unable to frighten or run away from, the opossum will "play dead" or "play possum". This response is involuntary. They become comatose, foam from the mouth, and secrete a foul smell from their anal glands. They will not move even if they are prodded at or carried away. Most attackers will simply walk away and the opossum will regain consciousness after a few minutes or a few hours.
Habitat and Diet
Opossums were originally native in the eastern U.S. During the Great Depression, they were introduced to the western region (probably as a source of food). They prefer wooded land but are adaptable and can survive wherever shelter, food, and water are available. Their dens can be found in a variety of areas, including hollow trees, stumps, rock piles, abandoned burrows, and attics.
Besides eating unpleasant food like dead animals, opossums will eat over-ripe fruit, berries, vegetables, grasses, and leaves. They are also known to eat snakes, frogs, birds, ground eggs, snail, slugs, moles, and garbage.
Opossums can produce 1-2 litters a year. The gestation is short (about 12-14 days). When the babies are born, they will find their way to the pouch and attach to a teat. At about 3 months, they will leave the pouch. For about another 2 months, the mother will carry her young on her back when away from the den.
More Opossum Facts
Opossums are said to rank higher in intelligence than dogs.
Opossums have a remarkable immune system. They are more resistant to rabies than other mammals and many can survive venomous bites from rattlesnakes and cottonmouths.
The life span of an opossum is one of the shortest for mammals its size. They usually live 2-4 years. Most are killed by predators and cars.
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Opossum image courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Possum20040508.jpg
Opossum playing dead image courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Opossum2.jpg