Discover The 2 Types Of Possums

Written by Kathryn Dueck
Updated: October 6, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/randimal
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So how many types of possums are there, anyway? That partly depends on whether you call them possums or opossums. Terminology makes a difference here, though many people use the terms interchangeably. Although there are several similarities between possums and opossums, there are also a few notable differences. Discover the 2 types of possums below!

The 2 Types of Possums

The Virginia opossum is the most common type of possum and is the only marsupial in North America.

The term “possum” applies to both possums and opossums in some contexts, though these are technically two distinct types of possums. Both are marsupials, meaning the females have pouches for carrying their young. Both are also nocturnal, preferring to hunt and scavenge at night.

The biggest difference between the 2 types of possums lies in their location. Possums live in Australia, while opossums live in the Americas. For this article, “possum” will refer to Australian possums, while “opossum” will refer to North, Central, and South American possums.

1. Australian Possums

possums
Possums live in Australia and the surrounding islands.

Stuart Elflett/Shutterstock.com

There are 69 species of possums in Australia and the surrounding islands. Examples of extant species include:

  • Common Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)
  • Common Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus)
  • Mountain Pygmy Possum (Burramys parvus)
  • Honey Possum (Tarsipes rostratus)
  • Scaly-Tailed Possum (Wyulda squamicaudata)

Location and Habitat

Unlike their American cousins, possums live in Australasia. This area includes the continent of Australia as well as its many surrounding islands like Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Tasmania, and the Solomon Islands.

Australia and its islands offer a variety of habitats suitable for possums. They are mainly tree-dwellers, gravitating toward woods and forests. Though they inhabit more exotic locations like the eucalypt forests and rainforests of Australia, they also roam along its coastlines in scrub forests.

However, possums don’t just live in the wilder regions of Australasia. They are highly adaptable creatures who often find themselves in urban environments. In these cases, they may take refuge in and under houses and sheds when tree hollows are unavailable. Homeowners consider them pests as they often cause damage to property, lawns, and gardens.

Size and Appearance

Possums vary greatly in size and weight depending on the species. In all species, the male is typically larger than the female. The smallest possum in the world is the Tasmanian pygmy possum, weighing no more than 0.25 to 0.35 ounces! They measure 2.6 to 3 inches long from head to tail, with a tail length of 2.4 to 2.8 inches. The largest Australian possum, the brushtail possum, is significantly larger, weighing between 2.6 and 10 pounds. The body length for this possum lies between 12.6 to 22.8 inches, with a tail length of 9.5 to 15.8 inches.

Possums come in four main colors: silver-grey, brown, black, and golden. These colors may occur mixed or by themselves. Possums have erect, rounded ears and small claws suitable for digging.

Diet and Predators

Possums are omnivores enjoying a relatively varied diet. They subsist on insects, eggs, and a variety of plant matter, including leaves, grasses, flowers, and fruits. Some species of possums, like the brushtail possum, may even eat small mammals like rodents.

As small marsupials, possums live under the threat of attack from several predators. These include snakes, tiger quolls, birds of prey like owls, dingoes, dogs, and cats. Though possums sometimes act as a natural form of pest control due to their diet, they themselves are pests and may be reluctant to hang around homes with large pets.

Lifespan

Possums live somewhat longer than opossums on average. In the wild, possums may live as long as 8 years. Some species, like the brushtail possum, may survive even longer, up to 13 years.

2. North, Central, and South American Opossums

Animals That Play Dead opossum
Opossums live in North, Central, and South America.

There are more than 100 species of opossums in the Americas. Included among these species are:

  • Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana)
  • Common opossum (Didelphis marsupialis)
  • White-eared opossum (Didelphis albiventris)
  • Big-eared opossum (Didelphis aurita)
  • Water opossum (Chironectes minimus)

Location and Habitat

Opossums live in North, Central, and South America as opposed to their Australian cousins across the Pacific. They migrated to North America from the south; only one opossum species lives north of Mexico, the Virginia opossum. This species lives as far north as Canada.

Opossums prefer habitats with extensive wooded areas or plenty of brushlands. Though many live in tree hollows or hollow stumps, they will also settle for the abandoned dens of other animals. Failing this, rock crevices and wood piles will suffice. Like possums, opossums have also adapted to urban environments. They make a nuisance of themselves burrowing into attics, sheds, or underneath buildings.

Size and Appearance

On average, opossums are somewhat larger than possums. Virginia opossums may grow as long as 40 inches from head to tail and weigh between 8.8 and 13.2 pounds. However, the largest opossum on record in America lived in Missouri and reached a groundbreaking 16 pounds and 2.6 ounces!

The smallest opossum species, the pygmy short-tailed opossum, inhabits South America. It weighs about 0.7 ounces on average, with a body length between 2.8 and 3.7 inches. The tail adds 1.61 to 1.65 inches to the total body length.

Opossums range in color from grey (the most common) to brown, black, and even white. These colors may occur in various patterns. The feet and nose are typically pink.

Diet and Predators

Silver Animals - Gray Four-Eyed Opossum
The opossum is a notorious scavenger and opportunist, feeding on garbage and often taking refuge in houses.

Kevin Wells Photography/Shutterstock.com

Opossums are omnivores and scavengers by nature. They will eat virtually anything, including garbage scraps and carrion. Unfortunately, this propensity gets them in trouble with homeowners who find their garbage bins overturned or damaged by rooting opossums. These nosy marsupials also frequently get themselves killed on highways by investigating roadkill.

In addition to garbage and carrion, opossums eat various types of plant matter, including grasses, leaves, fruits, and nuts. They also enjoy insects, rodents, birds, and snakes. Occasionally, they make a nuisance of themselves by eating chickens.

Opossums are subject to many predators, including birds of prey like great-horned owls and hawks. Other potential predators are wolves, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and even dogs.

Lifespan

Opossums typically don’t live long in the wild. Most species don’t survive beyond 1-2 years, though Virginia opossums may live slightly longer at 2-4 years. In captivity, they live much longer, up to 8 years.

Next time you’re confused about the types of possums, just remember: it all has to do with location! If it’s a possum, it’s in Australia; if it’s an opossum, it’s in the Americas.

Opossums Play Dead
A Virginia Opossum on a fence at night. The Virginia (or common) opossum is the only North American marsupial. A marsupial is a mammal that has a pouch where it carries its young.
iStock.com/randimal
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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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