Interesting Opossum Facts

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Published: June 25, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/randimal
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Opossums are not the most popular creatures in the world, in fact, many people who see them are not likely to be sure of what they are looking at. These smart creatures also have a less than glowing reputation, especially with their rat-like look and the fact that they disrupt garbage cans. However, there are so many fascinating facts about these creatures, and we have compiled them below. 

1. Opossums are different from possums 

They may have very similar names and both be marsupials, but they are completely different animals and belong to different orders. Furthermore, possums may be found in North, Central, and South America, while possums are native to Australia and Southeast Asia. Some people colloquially refer to opossums as possums, but it is important to note that they are distinct. 

2. Opossums are smart and savvy chaps 

We know they may not look like it, but these creatures are quite smart. Perhaps even smarter than cats, rats, and some dogs. Tested in experiments, opossums showed that they have an ability to remember that is superior to cats, rats, and dogs, although inferior to that of humans. Opossums will recall the taste of a toxic or nauseous substance up to a year after one encounter. 

Tests also show they will do well in a maze far better than cats and rats. Furthermore, they have an incredible ability to find food and never forget its location. 

3. Opossums play dead in the face of danger 

Opossums Play Dead - opossum in grass
Playing dead is an involuntary response on the part of the opossum.

iStock.com/ScrappinStacy

Every animal has a reaction when faced with danger, but the opossum’s reaction may be one of the strangest- it passes out.  This reaction is the last resort if hissing, growling, and teeth-baring have failed to work. While playing dead, the opossum rolls over, gets stiff, closes its eyes (or stares open-eyed), and bares its 50 small teeth. Furthermore, around the opossum’s mouth, saliva forms, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted by its anal glands. This state is called a catatonic state, and it is more common among younger opossums. In that period which can last up to 6 hours, the opossum’s heart rate slows down significantly. So, don’t be surprised if you drag one home thinking it is dead, only to see it shake itself and sneak out of your home. 

4. Opossums are immune to snake venom 

Animals That Play Dead opossum
The opossum is immune to snake venom.

Opossums have superpowers when it comes to the venom of some snake species including rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and other pit vipers. They have either partial or total immunity to the venom produced by these snakes. Furthermore, scientists are recreating the peptide that is found in these creatures to develop inexpensive rattlesnake antidotes. It will seem like we should all be grateful to opossums. 

5. Opossums have incredible health 

Again, they don’t look like it, but these guys are incredibly resistant to one of the most common diseases among mammals -rabies. One reason for this may be because of their low body temperature which makes it very difficult for the rabies virus to survive. They also rarely ever get Lyme disease even though ticks may bite them. In fact, many times they eat up ticks before they have the chance to infect them; about 95% of all the ticks they come across. Scientists estimate that a single opossum can kill up to 5000 ticks in a season. 

6. Opossums carry their young in their pouch 

Like kangaroos and other marsupials, opossums take care of their young ones in their pouches. At birth, young opossums are incredibly small, furless, blind, and deaf, making them in need of the care of a mother. After a gestation period of about 12 to 13 days, the young ones crawl into their mother’s pouch where they remain for about 2 months. They suck on the nipple in that period. 

Even after leaving the pouch, young opossums remain close to their mothers for a few months to learn critical survival skills, like how to find food and how to avoid predators. They ride on the backs of their mothers in that time. Female opossums give birth to between six and 20 young ones. Adult male opossums do not take part in the care of the young. A female opossum is called a jill, while baby opossums are called joeys. An adult male is referred to as a jack. 

7. Opossums are great for pest control 

The first instinct you may have should you find an opossum in your garden is to chase it away, but in truth, you may be doing more good by welcoming it. Opossums are excellent pest control officers. They feed on multiple pests including cockroaches, rats, venomous snakes, and other insects and rodents. They also eat ticks intensely. Furthermore, they may also help keep pests away by feeding on rotten fruits and vegetables. 

You should however note that they may eat vegetation from time to time, though they don’t pose a significant risk to them. 

8. Opossums have more teeth than any other land-based animal in North America 

With 50 teeth, opossums have more teeth than any land-based mammal in North America. Interestingly, just like humans, opossums also have two sets of teeth in their lifetime. They have the “milk teeth” which give way to the adult teeth. For opossums, all their adult teeth are developed by the time they are six months old. They also have four kinds of teeth, namely incisors, molars, premolars, and canines. 

9. Opossums are opportunistic eaters 

Opossums are scavengers who will eat about anything. They are attracted to roadkills and can be seen eating dead and decaying flesh. They also visit human habitations particularly garbage cans and dumpsters in search of food. They hunt mice, snails, and snakes, and also eat fruits, plants, and vegetation. One benefit of their ability to eat anything is that they can adjust their diet based on season and location.   

10. Only one species of opossum lives in the United States and Canada 

Opossums Play Dead
The Virginia (or common) opossum is the only North American marsupial.

iStock.com/randimal

There are over 120 species of opossum all over the world, however, only one kind is native to the United States and Canada, and that is the Virginia Opossum. 

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