By Jeb Lapeyrolerie - Camp Kubena Executive Director
We have such a variety of different critters here at camp, and I’d like to help us all learn a little bit more about some of them - especially ones that have a bad reputation that maybe they don’t deserve.
Let’s talk about the opossum today. (Most people simply refer to them as a possum.) The opossum is the only marsupial in the United States. A marsupial is an order of mammals that give birth to partially developed babies who then crawl into a pouch, usually on the mother’s belly, to suckle and finish developing. A momma opossum can give birth to up to 20 babies at a time. Once the babies develop enough to leave the pouch you can often see them hitching a ride on their mom’s back. The babies that reach adulthood have a life span of only about two years in the wild. Part of the reason for this is due to their many predators like coyotes, dogs, and bobcats. (FYI a female opossum is a jill, a male is a jack, the babies are joeys, and a group of opossums is a passel.)
You have probably seen an opossum, no matter where you live. They are found in cities, suburbs, farms, and wilderness. They can live so many different places because they can eat so many different things. They love to eat snails, mice, rats, crickets, ticks, rotting fruit that has fallen from trees, pet food that has been left out, and any other garbage or rotting stuff they can find. They are often called, “Nature’s little sanitation engineers.”
Myths and Misconceptions
Now that we know some basics about the opossum, let’s talk about some of the myths and misconceptions that are out there about it.
A lot of people think that the opossum likes to hang from its tail from tree branches to sleep. The truth is that it does have a prehensile tail that allows it to hold on to things or help it climb. They could use it to catch themselves if they were falling, but they would not choose to hang from it especially to sleep. They prefer to sleep in holes in the ground or other dark, protected areas. Their favorite places are burrows that other animals dug and have abandoned.
Everyone agrees that these little guys are not cute and cuddly, and that they can look really mean and aggressive. They will hiss and bare their teeth when cornered, but they are faking it. Their main form of defense is to play dead. They will drop down on their sides and lay there with their tongue hanging out to discourage the predator from eating them. They can stay like this for up to four hours! So if you run across a dead opossum, leave it alone for a while, it may jump up and run off. Also, remember they are a wild animal and can bite so be careful. (they have 50 teeth which is more than any other mammal in North America)
Rabies is always a concern with mammals in North America, and the opossum doesn’t do itself any favors when it foams at the mouth when trying to scare off predators or when faking dead. In reality, the opossum is very resistant to the virus and virtually never contracts it. Also, a bonus for them is that they are extremely resistant to toxins. Even most snake venom doesn’t affect them. Growing up, my grandfather always enlisted me to help him keep those darned possums out of his garden. But, they were helping us more than we knew. Opossums don’t dig up gardens or yards. They like eating all the snails and other pests that like to destroy our gardens and plants and will clear them all out of its area before moving on to the next place.
Speaking of eating pests . . . did you know that opossums think ticks are a great treat? They will eat up somewhere around 5,000 each season!
So next time you see an opossum in your yard, don’t go after it with your broom. Let him finish eating whatever mess or pest he has found and protect him from your dog. Once he has finished cleaning up, he’ll move on to another area.