VIRGINIA OPOSSUM – [Didelphis virginiana]

Physical characteristics: The Virginia opossum is one marsupial

that a majority of Americans have surely seen, if only as roadkill.

These opossums have low-slung, vaguely rat-shaped bodies that in

adults can weigh up to 14 pounds (6.4 kilograms). Males are larger

than females. Adult head and body length can reach 20 inches (50

centimeters), and the tail length can reach 18 inches (47 centime-

ters). The body fur is light to dark grayish, due to a coat of white fur

with black tips under a longer coat of pale guard hairs. The head is

white and elongated, and studded with long whiskers. In some indi-

viduals, the gray coat may extend in a stripe across the crown, ta-

pering to an end between the eyes. The eyes are black and shiny. The

long, strong tail is scaly, colored whitish or pinkish, and nearly hair-

less, much like a rat’s, and is prehensile, able to grasp tree branches

and carry nesting materials. The ears, nostrils, forepaws, and hind-

paws are pinkish and only sparsely furred. Each paw has five digits,

and the hallux (HAL-lux; big toe) is opposable, allowing the opos-

sum to grasp branches.

Geographic range: The Virginia opossum is one of the few marsu-

pials, in Australasia or the Americas, that is at home in temperate re-

gions with cold winters. Its range extends as far north as Ontario,

Canada, and as far south as Costa Rica in Central America. Virginia

opossums are found in North America, from Central America and

Mexico in the south, through the United States east of the Rocky

Mountains and north into southwestern Ontario. Opossums are also

found along the west coast of the United States.

Habitat: Virginia opossums prefer living in forest, farmland, and

suburbia with possible denning sites and a water source close at hand,

but this adaptable species can survive and thrive almost anywhere, in-

cluding grassland and near-desert conditions. These opossums are no-

madic, seldom staying in one foraging area for more than a year.

Individuals may sleep during the day in whatever temporary shelters

they find, or build nests, lined with leaves. Refuges include woodpiles,

thickets, rock crevices, and in various human-made structures such as

under porches and raised houses, and in barns, drainpipes, and sheds.

Diet: The Virginia opossum is truly omnivorous, eating almost any-

thing that can be considered food. A partial list of dietary preferences

includes rats, mice, moles, slugs, snails, shrews, worms, beetles, ants,

grasshoppers, crickets, frogs, garbage, fruit, corn, berries, and carrion.

An even more unusual source of food is poisonous snakes, to whose

venoms the opossums are immune. This includes copperheads, wa-

ter moccasins, and rattlesnakes.

Behavior and reproduction: Like most opossums, Virginia opos-

sums live and forage, search for food, solitarily. They forage mostly

at night, but sometimes during the day. If male individuals meet, they

avoid each other or sound off with threat displays, with hissings,

growlings, and screechings, often going on to one-on-one combat.

Males fight one another ferociously during mating seasons. On the

other hand, if a male and female meet during the breeding season,

they will mate and then stay together for several days.

Mating seasons vary according to how far north individual opossums

live. Virginia opossums begin mating in December in the southern states,

in March in the northernmost states and Canada, and in January and

February for areas between. In Canada and in the north and central

states, females usually bear only one litter per year. Two or even three

litters are common in the southern states and further south.

Young are born thirteen days after mating. Litters can range in num-

bers of up to twenty, with a record of fifty-two, but since the mother

has only thirteen nipples, only a maximum of thirteen in a litter can

survive. Newborns are scarcely bigger than rice grains. The young

spend up to 100 days, or slightly over three months, in the pouch. By

seventy-five to eighty-five days, the young are weaned and leave the

pouch, but remain with the mother for another two or three months

before leaving to live on their own. Until they leave, the mother car-

ries the young on her back. Young males reach sexual maturity at eight

months, females at six. The longest recorded lifespan in the wild for

the Virginia opossum is three years, although captive individuals have

lived as long as ten years.

When threatened by a predator, a Virginia opossum may react in

any of several ways. Escape is always the optimal choice, and includes

climbing trees and swimming. If escape proves impossible, the opos-

sum may use its variation of the basic mammalian threat response,

opening its jaws wide, baring its fifty-five teeth, and hissing at its foe.

It may also discharge a foul-smelling, greenish fluid from anal glands.

Or, the opossum may use its “drooling” display, building up its saliva

content, drooling from its mouth and blowing froth and bubbles from

its nostrils, in hopes of convincing a predator that the opossum is se-

riously diseased and therefore dangerous to eat.

The opossum’s final defensive recourse is either fighting back or

performing its most famous behavior, “playing possum.” The animal

collapses, the eyes glaze, the jaws open, the tongue lolls, the teeth are

partly bared, and the stinky anal fluid release adds the final carrion

touch. The deathlike state is a form of catatonia, in which the animal

lies limp, does not react to touch or prodding, and cannot be roused

by any method. The muscles become limp, basic functions slow.

Predators of opossums, among them coyotes, dogs, bobcats, and birds

of prey, will reject the seemingly dead opossum and leave it un-

touched. From one minute to six hours after the predator has left the

scene, the opossum rouses itself and moves off.

Throughout its range in Canada and in parts of the United States

that have long, cold winters, Virginia opossums feed to build up ex-

tra body fat in the fall in preparation for the lean winter months. The

species doesn’t hibernate, but in especially cold weather, individuals

may stay quietly in their shelters for a few days. Otherwise, they’re

outside and hiking across the snow to forage.

Virginia opossums and people: Virginia opossums sometimes help

themselves to human garbage, but cause far less mess and destruc-

tion than do raccoons. Virginia opossums, like most mammals, can

carry and transmit rabies. Virginia opossums have been, and still are,

hunted for food and for their pelts.

Their ability to eat almost anything organic puts Virginia opos-

sums in the front ranks of living nature’s cleaning crews. They eat

pest insects like cockroaches, garden pests like snails and slugs, pest

mammals like roof rats and mice, and they eat all varieties of carrion.

Conservation status: Virginia opossums have adapted to humans

successfully, are in no danger of extinction, and have even extended

their ranges in some areas.