Are Possums Nocturnal or Diurnal?

Written by Kathryn Dueck
Published: November 18, 2022
© Evelyn D. Harrison/Shutterstock.com
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Are possums nocturnal or diurnal? These funny-looking marsupials live in two areas of the world: Australia and its surrounding islands, and the Americas. Possums from the Americas are technically called opossums but to avoid confusion, we’ll use the colloquial term possum to refer to both unless otherwise specified.

Read on to learn more about these fascinating marsupials.

A possum a hollow tree with the majority of of its body exposed. The possum's mouths wide open exposing a row of small, sharp white teeth. The possum's body is covered in grey fur, its face is white, and its snout is pink.
Opossums Play Dead

What Does It Mean to be Nocturnal, Diurnal, or Crepuscular?

Most of us know that nocturnal refers to animals that are active at night, but did you know that there are other terms used to describe animals that are active at other times of the day or night, including diurnal and crepuscular. Let’s take a closer look at these words and their respective meanings.

Nocturnal

Nocturnal animals are most active during the night. This doesn’t mean they can’t be active at other times; it simply means that they operate most efficiently at nighttime.

Why are some animals nocturnal? Many creatures have visual, aural, or other physical characteristics that are better suited to darkness. Some animals are active at night to escape predators or more easily hunt food. Other animals come out at night for no other reason than to avoid the hottest hours of the day!

Examples of nocturnal animals include:

  • Owls
  • Panthers
  • Bats

Diurnal

Diurnal creatures are most active during the daytime. Humans, for example, are usually diurnal. Being active during the day has a number of benefits including increased visibility and warmer temperatures. Many animals don’t have the necessary characteristics for navigating thru darkness or avoiding predators.

A brushtail possum, native to Australia, straddling a ltree limb on which grey lichen grows. The posse is different tones of brown with big dark eyes and a pink nose. indistinct natural background.
Most possum species are nocturnal.

©Timothy Christianto/Shutterstock.com

Examples of diurnal animals include:

  • Most primates (including humans)
  • Dogs
  • Deer

Crepuscular

Crepuscular animals are most active at dawn and/or dusk. Within this category, matutinal animals prefer to be active at dawn while vespertine animals prefer to be active at dusk.

There are distinct advantages to being crepuscular For example, most nocturnal and diurnal animals don’t see well during dawn and dusk, giving crepuscular animals an edge, helping them in both tracking prey and avoiding predators. For another thing, temperatures are usually more moderate during these periods.

Examples of crepuscular animals include:

  • Wolves
  • Cats
  • Lions

Are Possums Nocturnal or Diurnal?

Most possum species are nocturnal, which means they are more active during the night. It’s unusual to see possums active during the day under normal conditions, though it does happen.

Why Are Possums Nocturnal?

Possums are nocturnal for a few reasons:

  • Eyesight: Many people assume possums are blind. This isn’t the case! Possums’ eyes are especially adapted to seeing well at night. Their pupils are constantly dilated to allow in the maximum amount of light. This allows possums to see well at night, but does not prove advantageous during the day.
  • Predators: Possums are slow-moving and rely on their ability to hide or climb trees to escape predation. North American opossums also play dead if necessary. Taking refuge in the darkness means predators are less likely to spot them.
  • Food: Possums take advantage of the darkness to hunt for food. This is especially useful for possums living near humans, who typically sleep at night. These marsupials are then able to dig around in trash cans or sneak into houses in search of scraps!

What Do Possums Do During the Day?

Most possums spend their days sleeping. They retire to their shelter of choice to stay out of sight of predators while they rest. Possums may den in a number of locations, including:

  • Hollow tree trunks. This is a possum’s first choice of home. It allows them to hide effectively from most predators, especially if they are caring for young.
  • Abandoned animal dens and nests. Possums usually don’t dig their own dens, utilizing the abandoned holes or nests of other animals.
  • Buildings. Possums often make pests of themselves by making their homes in attics, roofs, or sheds.
  • Rocks. Possums often shelter under or between rocks when no other home is available.

However, not all possums stick strictly to a nocturnal schedule. Some choose to come out during the day.

Two brown/grey possums startling a tree limb. The possum to the right in the frame is eating fruit, as the possum on the left looks on. It is nighttime ant it is obvious that the photographer used a flash. some greenery in a otherwise dark background.
Possums take advantage of the darkness to hunt for food.

©wollombi / Creative Commons

Why Do Some Possums Come Out During the Day?

Most people assume that a possum who is active during the day must be sick, possibly even rabid. This is usually not the case. Some possums that would prefer to be nocturnal, resort to a diurnal schedule for one of two reason: Either the possum is struggling to find food at night, or a predator has frightened it out of its home.

During the winter it’s not unusual for possums to forage during the day, when prey is more abundant and the weather more moderate. Possums also may emerge during daylight if a predator frightens them out of their shelter, only returning to their den when they feel safe.

As for the fear of rabid possums, it’s almost impossible for a possum to contract rabies due to their low body temperature. Possums are more vulnerable during the day and may display behaviour associated with rabies such as hissing, drooling, and growling. However, these are simply the possum’s way of deterring threats. Though they aren’t prone to having rabies, its still a good idea not to approach a possum in the wild, especially one that appears frightened or aggressive.

Are Any Possum Species Diurnal or Crepuscular?

Though the vast majority of possums are nocturnal, one species has attracted the attention of scientists for being different. The honey possum, a small marsupial native to Western Australia, may not conform to the norm. Though scientists once classified it as strictly nocturnal, recent studies suggest that it may be crepuscular instead. Not only is its eyesight more suited to daylight than darkness, but researchers have also observed it foraging more during dawn and dusk than at night.

Though most possums are nocturnal, you could find yourself encountering one during the day, an when you do, remember that possums are rarely aggressive unless cornered, so keeping your distance and giving it plenty of space to escape should keep everyone happy and safe.

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The Featured Image

A m other opossum carries her five babies on her back a she startles a fallen log in a field of Shasta daisies. The mother and her offspring are grey with white faces and pink snouts.
Opossum are the Only Known North American Marsupial. They can eat ticks by the thousands.
© Evelyn D. Harrison/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

I am a freelance writer with experience in both fiction and nonfiction. When not putting words on a page, I enjoy reading, hiking in the great outdoors, and playing with my dog.

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Sources
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  2. wildliferemovalusa.com, Available here: http://wildliferemovalusa.com/opossumdaytime.html
  3. Csiro.au, Available here: https://www.publish.csiro.au/am/am01169
  4. cambridge.org, Available here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-zoology/article/abs/visual-capabilities-in-a-crepuscular-marsupial-the-honey-possum-tarsipes-rostratus-a-visual-approach-to-ecology/B7C35DF93CDF3049025787C4D21413BC