Opossums have a bad reputation for being garbage intruders and “scary-looking” critters who crawl up onto our homes at night. They are also one species that’s easy to identify and isn’t easily confused with other local animals. Once you’ve seen one, you’ll never mistake it for anything else. Even though many people find them unattractive to look at, opossums are actually quite a misunderstood critter with a helpful purpose.
Do you want to learn more about this species that so many of us have unfairly judged? You’ll be surprised by the facts you find out, including just how long the opossum lifespan actually is!
The Rundown On Opposums
In North America, the terms “opossum” and “possum” relate to the same mammal. However, in Australia, “possum” refers to an altogether different animal. Opossums are classified as marsupials, which are mammals that carry and nurse their young in pouches. In the USA and Canada, the only marsupials we have is the opossum. So what makes them so fascinating?
Well, they are actually responsible for killing thousands of ticks. The opossum is an avid foodie who will eat anything and everything it finds, as you may have noticed by seeing one digging through your garbage can. Compared to any other mammal, opossums kill and eat significantly more ticks. According to the National Wildlife Federation, in each tick season, a single possum eats roughly 5000 parasites. Ticks, particularly black-legged ticks such as deer ticks, which are responsible for the transmission of Lyme disease, appear to be a favorite of the opossum. So it looks like opossums are responsible for keeping us Lyme disease-free.
Now that we have a better understanding of this tick-hungry marsupial, let’s learn all about the opossum lifespan.
How Long Do Opossums Live?
So, how long is the opossum’s lifespan? The average opossum lifespan is one to two years in the wild and as long as four years in captivity. The lifespan of an opossum is relatively short for a mammal of its size. The oldest reported opossum in captivity was four years and five months old. However, in the wild, opossums have a substantially lower life expectancy and seldom live past their first year.
In a study done by Stanford University Medical Center, it was discovered that carnivores prey heavily on mainland opossums. The opossum lifespan suddenly changed when a little stretch of land got separated from the mainland by a river, preventing many predators from having access.
The opossums on the island lived substantially longer than those on the mainland, showing that a longer lifespan evolved rapidly. In the absence of predation, island opossums have been subjected to natural selection, resulting in a group with a longer lifespan.
Let’s look at the opossum’s life cycle now that we know how long they live.
The Average Opossum Life Cycle
As marsupials, opossums have a fascinating life cycle. Let’s explore each stage in more detail.
Breeding & Gestation
The mating season for opossums begins near the end of winter, in the time between January and February. The male opossum detects a female in heat while foraging at night. During the estrus season, female opossums will accept a male just once. If a pregnancy does not occur within the 36 hours or so she is in heat, she will continue to enter estrus in 28-day cycles until breeding is successful. Only 12-13 days after mating, the opossum gives birth to 16-20 offspring. This is the shortest gestation period of any North American mammal.
Baby opossums are known as joeys. Opossums are roughly the size of a grain of rice when they are born. Despite being born blind, they will climb up under their mother’s tail and traverse her hairy belly to reach her pouch for protection. The majority of the children do not survive into adulthood because they can’t locate a nipple – there are only 13 nipples. They will eventually die if they are unable to locate a teat to feed on. The ones that are lucky enough to locate a teat will increase their chances of making it into adulthood.
The newborns triple in size after only one week of feeding off their mom. The joeys eyes eventually open after approximately 60 to 70 days in the pouch. They occasionally let go of the nipple at this point as they will soon emerge from the pouch. When they are 75 to 85 days old, they are weaned and rarely return to the pouch. They will remain with their mother until they are 3 to 4 months old.
An opossum is finally an adult once it leaves the pouch and is ready to live without its mom. For males, the age of maturity occurs at 8 months. For females, this occurs at around 6 months.
What Factors Impact The Opossum Lifespan
Opossums have a relatively short lifespan, as we have discovered. A lot of this has to do with external factors that they’re not able to control.
Some of these factors include:
- Predation: Opossums have a lot of natural predators out in the wild that they must watch out for. A wide range of animals, including owls, raptors, coyotes, bobcats, and unsupervised dogs, prey on them in the wild.
- Humans: Opossums are often seen as annoying pests to many humans, especially homeowners. Homeowners get particularly frustrated when they find that opossums have been digging through their trash. This has led many people to call wildlife catchers and exterminators to get rid of opossums in their area. Another huge issue is automobile accidents. Since opossums “play dead” and cannot always control when this happens, this leads to them being roadkill so often.
- Sicknesses: Just like other animals, opossums are at risk of contracting different sicknesses. A few of these include Leptospirosis, Tularemia, and Murine Typhus. A sick opossum will often display certain signs such as fur loss, and ulcers or tumors on the skin.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/galinast
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