Possum vs Opossum: How to Say It and How to Tell the Difference

possum vs opossum

Written by Rebecca Bales

Updated: October 24, 2022

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Was that furry animal a possum or an opossum? What is the correct pronunciation? Was it “playing possum?” What does that even mean? If you’ve got questions about possum vs opossum, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn how to tell the difference.

Possum vs Opossum

How can you tell the difference between a possum vs opossum? Both are marsupial mammals, meaning they carry their babies in a fleshy pouch. They are also both nocturnal, most active at night.

The most evident difference is, where in the world does the animal live? If you saw it in the wild in North America, it’s an opossum – a Virginia opossum, to be exact. If it is in or around Australia, call it a plain old possum.

Next, look at the tail of the opossum vs possum. Opossums have a scaly, nearly hairless rat-like tail. Possums have a bushy tail similar to a squirrel’s.

You can also observe what the possum/opossum is eating. Australian possums are herbivores. American opossums are omnivores or scavengers. They’ll eat many things – fruit, insects, garbage, and carrion (meat). Cat food or dog food left outdoors is a favorite opossum snack.

How does the opossum vs possum react when frightened? North American opossums have two very distinct defensive behaviors. First, they will hiss loudly at a perceived attacker. If this display of aggression doesn’t discourage the curious onlooker, the opossum will “play possum” – it will play dead. Some predators will leave the animal alone if they think it is already dead. But the opossum isn’t pretending to be asleep – it actually enters a catatonic state. This is not voluntary but an instinctive response.

Possum vs Opossum: a Comparison

We’ve compiled the following chart to help you easily distinguish between possums and opossums.

Please note that there is only one species of North American opossum, Dedelphis virginiana. The common opossum, Didelphis marsupialis, looks similar and lives in South America. There are about 70 species of Phalangeriformes or Australasian possums. The common brushtail possum (Richosurus vulpecula) and common ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus) are among the best known.

Geographic DistributionNorth AmericaAustralia and Oceania
Tail TypeHairless, rat-likeFluffy, squirrel-like
Defense MechanismsHissing and catatoniaArboreal

Possum vs Opossum: 4 Key Differences

Which is it? Opossum vs possum? Consider these four key differences.

Possum vs Opossum: Geographic Distribution

Virginia opossums live in North America. They have been recorded from Canada to Costa Rica. They are the only marsupial species located north of Mexico.

Possums, on the other hand, are native to Oceania, which includes Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and many smaller Pacific islands.

Possum vs Opossum: Tail Type

The opossum‘s tail–in opossum vs possum–it sports a long, virtually hairless tail that may even appear scaly. This tail gives the animal the appearance of a very large rat.

Australian possums have fluffy, squirrel-like tails.

A possums tail is thick and furry, the name of one of the most common possum species is the brushtail possum which highlights this interesting feature. They also have pointed snouts and typically give live birth to one young at a time rather than carry a full litter to term like dogs or cats.

Possum vs Opossum: Diet

What does the animal in question eat? Australian possums are herbivores, eating only plants. Opossums, on the other hand, are both scavengers and omnivorous. They’ll eat almost anything, including both plants and meat. Common carnivorous food sources for the opossum include insects, small reptiles, pet food, human garbage, and the carcasses of dead animals.

Possum vs Opossum: Defense Mechanisms

In terms of the defense mechanisms of opossum vs possum, North American opossums may hiss loudly if they feel threatened, showing their teeth. They are also famous for “playing possum.” While this has colloquially come to refer to as faking sleep, opossums aren’t faking. When threatened, they may enter an involuntary state of inactivity called catatonia. This is meant to discourage predators that are seeking live prey. The opossum will awaken from this state in a matter of minutes or hours.

Australian possums are very territorial, urinating and rubbing oil from chest, chin, and anal glands on the territory they wish to mark. Otherwise, they are shy creatures, but will stare down fellow possums while holding their ears erect to defend themselves.

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About the Author

Rebecca is an experienced Professional Freelancer with nearly a decade of expertise in writing SEO Content, Digital Illustrations, and Graphic Design. When not engrossed in her creative endeavors, Rebecca dedicates her time to cycling and filming her nature adventures. When not focused on her passion for creating and crafting optimized materials, she harbors a deep fascination and love for cats, jumping spiders, and pet rats.

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