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

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Published: June 19, 2021


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 and an 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. 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 it 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.

Comparing Possums vs Opossums

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.

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

The 4 Key Differences Between Possums and Opossums

Which is it? 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

Opossums sport 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.

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

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.

Australasian possums do not react in this way.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What Is the Difference Between the Possum and the Opossum?

Opossums live in North America, While possums are from Australia and Oceania. Opossums are omnivorous scavengers with rat-like tails. Possums are tree-dwelling herbivores with bushy, squirrel-like tails. Opossums also have unique defensive behaviors, including hissing and playing dead.

Is the "O" Silent in the Word Opossum?

No, and yes. The common name of the Virginia opossum, the only marsupial species native to North America, is usually pronounced “oh-possum” when spelled with the initial “o.” However, many people shorten the word to “possum” for convenience, much as we abbreviate words like “you are” to “you’re.” Spelling it “opossum” but not pronouncing the “o” is also an accepted, official pronunciation.

In scientific or formal speech and writing, the full “opossum” is the preferred pronunciation. In everyday conversation, it is acceptable to treat the “o” as a silent letter if you so choose. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, in etymology, the study of words and languages, this natural “loss of a short unaccented vowel at the beginning of a word” is called aphesis.

In Australia and the surrounding islands, the native marsupial possums are simply “possums.” The word does not contain the letter “o” at the beginning – usually. In rare instances, the Australian possum is also correctly referred to as an “opossum.”

Why Do They Call Possums, Opossum

“Opossum” is the name of the North American species. It first appears in documentation from the 1600s, and it is thought to have been borrowed from a Native American word, apousoum, meaning “a white dog-like animal.”

“Opossum” was first recorded in 1610. The shortened form “possum” is known from 1613. From that time until today, many people drop the “o” and pronounce the word “possum.”

Later, when English explorers who had seen the opossum reached Austalia, they observed animals with a similar appearance. The naturalist Sir Joseph Banks called them “possums,” pronouncing the word as he had become accustomed in North America. To throw in a bit more confusion: sometimes, Australians use the term “opossum” for their variety!