Opossums are among the most misunderstood creatures in the Americas, with around 100 species belonging to the order Didelphimorphia.
They’re sometimes stereotyped as dimwitted, filthy critters whose most notable trick is impersonating roadkill. The truth is that opossums are more intelligent, cleaner, and beneficial to humans than many of their woodland neighbors. Continue reading to learn more about opossums.
1. Possums Are Not the Same Animal as Opossums.
The terms opossum and possum are interchangeable in North America, whereas possum refers to a separate mammal in Australia. The Virginia opossum and the brushtail possum are two of the most well-known of their species.
Both are omnivorous marsupials of small to medium size, but that’s where the similarities end. The possum is an adorable hybrid between a squirrel and a chinchilla that belongs to a different order than the North American mammal with the same name (for the most part).
Despite the possibility of misunderstanding, in this region of the world, a possum is acknowledged as the shorter version of the opossum (and if you find the word possum in this list, you may assume it refers to the species from the Americas).
2. They Are the Only Marsupials Existing in the North of Mexico.
Marsupials—mammals that carry and nurse their young in pouches—are rare in much of the world, with opossums serving as the group’s sole representation in Canada and the United States. Mother possums give birth to tiny, underdeveloped young (called joeys) who immediately crawl into a pouch where they dwell and nurse for the first few months of their lives, just like other marsupials.
They only venture out once they’ve grown big and strong enough, switching back and forth between their mother’s back and the warmth of the pouch until they reach adulthood.
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3. When They Play Dead, They Have No Choice.
The opossum’s most notable attribute is its proclivity to play dead in front of predators. When confronted with danger, the animal freezes and flops to the ground, where it can remain for hours, looking blankly ahead and sticking out its tongue.
It’s a formidable defense mechanism, but its effectiveness cannot be attributed to the possum’s acting abilities. Possums have no control over when or for how long they pretend to be dead: The comatose-like state is an uncontrollable reaction to stress.
4. The Performance Is Selected by an Offensive Odor.
A photo of a possum pretending to be dead doesn’t do it credit. You must be standing close enough to smell the rotten odor it emanates when pretending to be a corpse to get the full effect. The stinky material it secretes from its anus gives foxes and bobcats another reason to hunt for food elsewhere.
5. They Reduce the Expansion of Lyme Disease.
Possums should be a welcome addition to your backyard, even if they aren’t the cutest critters in the forest. Possums eat 90 percent of the ticks that cling to them, unlike other mammals that carry parasites and hence spread Lyme Disease.
A single possum consumes 5000 parasites per tick season, according to the National Wildlife Federation. As a result, the more possums in your neighborhood, the fewer tricks you’ll encounter.
6. They Have Surprisingly Sharp Memories.
When it comes to eating, opossums have excellent memories. Possums outperform rats, cats, dogs, and pigs in remembering which runway leads to pleasant food, according to research. They can also remember the odor of harmful chemicals for up to a year after they have tried them.
7. They Are Immune to the Venom of Most Snakes.
When most animals see a snake, they see danger; when a possum sees a snake, it seeks its next meal. With the exception of the coral snake, the animals are immune to the venom of practically every variety of snakes present in their natural habitat. Possums take advantage of this adaption by regularly feasting on snakes.
For decades, scientists have attempted to harness the antivenom properties of possums. A group of scientists made progress in this area a few years ago when they reproduced a peptide found in possums and discovered that mice fed the peptide plus rattlesnake venom were shielded from the venom’s detrimental effects.
8. They Are Rarely Affected by Rabies.
While possums aren’t completely immune to rabies (a few cases have been documented), discovering one is highly unlikely. Possums have a lower body temperature than the placental mammals that dominate North America, thus their bodies don’t create a good habitat for the virus to thrive.
9. Their Fifth Appendage Is Their Tail.
only a few animals have prehensile tails, such as opossums. These appendages can be employed as an extra arm, carrying grass and leaves for nest building or gripping the sides of trees for increased stability while climbing.
Baby possums can even use their tails to hang upside down from branches, as they are sometimes represented in cartoons. Possums do not sleep this way since their tails are only strong enough to hold them for a limited period of time.
10. They Are Always Grooming Themselves.
Opossums aren’t recognized for being the cleanest creatures in the world, thanks to their habit of acting and smelling like a corpse. They do, however, take cleanliness seriously: Possums, like housecats, groom themselves frequently and thoroughly using their tongue and paws, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Possums don’t have many sweat glands, therefore this activity is thought to help them stay cool. It also renders them odorless (when they aren’t secreting stinking predator-repellant).
11. They Don’t Have Completely Black Eyes.
The opossum’s opaque eyes are one of its most distinguishing traits. Although opossum eyes have whites and irises, their pupils are so big that they seem black from a distance. The nocturnal creatures’ increased pupil dilatation is supposed to help them see when the sunsets.
12. They Are Social Animals.
Opossums have long been thought to be solitary creatures, but a study published in the journal Biology Letters reveals they have a social side. Some possums in captivity shared dens even if they weren’t mates, according to researchers at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil.
In one instance, 13 white-eared opossums of varied ages shared a living area. Male and female possums in the wild may even build nests together to activate the female’s reproductive hormones, according to the researchers.
13. Their Reproductive Systems Are Difficult to Understand.
The opossum’s reproductive life isn’t just fascinating because of how it gives birth and nurtures its young. Males have a forked or bifurcated penis, whereas females have two vaginal tracts and two uteri.
This is rather common among marsupials, but European conquerors didn’t sure what to make of the perplexing genitalia when they first arrived in North America centuries ago. They came up with one explanation: male opossums impregnated females through the nose.