Opossums; Why We Love Them!

August 16, 2016

opossum collage(1)

Of all the animals people bring us to assist at our intake center, the one that most seem to be afraid of or dislike most is the opossum. Often that fear or dislike is based on misinformation. In this article, we’d like to convert a few more of our readers to become fans of opossums.

The opossums we have in North American (often called a “possum”) is the Virginia Opossum. They happen to be special because they are the only marsupial animal native to North America. Marsupial animals (or non-placental animals) raise their babies in a pouch, just like kangaroos do. Hmmm, maybe if opossums could hop they’d be more popular! When the baby opossums are born, they are furless, blind, and about the size of a honeybee. They have to crawl up the mother opossum’s fur and into her pouch, where they grab on to one of her thirteen nipples. Once they are attached, the nipple swells and the baby becomes attached. They don’t suckle to drink, but rather the mother’s milk slowly leaches out (that is why very young opossums if found abandoned or orphaned have to be tube fed; they have no natural sucking reflex as other baby mammals do). As with other pouch-raised babies, the baby opossums remain in the pouch as they continue to grow and mature. They first venture outside of the pouch when they are between two to two and a half months old (their eyes open and they have fur at about two months of age, at which point they are about the size of a mouse).
Opossums are very good mothers and they are very protective of their young. Once the babies emerge from her pouch, they often ride along on her back while she forages for food, and they begin to eat solid food at this point (about three months old). Once the babies are weaned, about six inches long (without their tail), and their ears are almost solid black, they are old enough to fend for themselves. At this point, it is “tough love” opossum style; mama opossum will simply brush against something to knock the babies off her back and away she goes. She’s dedicated for as long as she needs to be, but when she’s done, she’s done.
Opossums are scavengers. They move from place to place in search of good food sources and a comfy place to sleep. They are attracted to carrion and can often be spotted near roadkill, which is helpful to us to keep diseases at bay. As omnivores, opossums also eat grass, nuts, fruit, and they will also mice, insects (including roaches), worms, slugs, and snakes (including venomous ones). They are beneficial for helping to control the overpopulation of snakes, rodents, and insects.
Speaking of venomous snakes, opossums are immune to snake venom! In lab experiments, it has been discovered that a particular molecule, called a peptide, in the opossum’s blood can neutralize snake venom. The peptide works against several venomous snake species, including America’s western diamond back rattlesnake. Experiments are being done to see if scientists could mass produce the substance and use it as an inexpensive and universal anti-venom for human snake-bite victims.
Opossums are fastidiously clean, similar to cats in their grooming routine. If they find a tick in their fur, they lick it off and swallow it. It is estimated that in one season, an opossum can kill and consume about 5,000 ticks. More than 90 percent of ticks on an opossum end up being groomed away and eaten. This could have implications in preventing certain tick-borne diseases (including Lyme disease) in domestic pets and humans. In areas with a healthy opossum population, they can help to control the overpopulation of ticks, thereby keeping the ticks off of us and our pets! The opossums do not seem to be affected by these tick-borne illnesses.
Opossums have a naturally low body temperature (94-97°F). This feature makes them much less susceptible to other diseases that can affect wildlife animals (such as distemper). Although technically any mammal can get rabies, the chance of rabies in an opossum is EXTREMELY RARE. So although they have a reputation of being dirty and disease-ridden animals, that is really not the case.
To clear up a couple of myths about opossums; adults cannot hang from their tails. They do have prehensile tails (similar to chameleons) which they use to help grip and balance when climbing trees. Also, when they “play possum”, they are not “playing dead”; actually, the opossum has an involuntary comatose-like state induced by extreme fear (so basically, they faint). This state can last from several minutes to several hours. While “dead,” the opossum’s body is limp, its front feet form into balls and drool runs out of its mouth. It may even appear that rigor mortis has begun. Once the danger has passed, and the opossum “comes to” again and goes on his way.
Opossums have a relatively short life span for an animal of its size. In the wild, they generally only live an average of three years. Many are killed by cars, dogs, owls, and larger wildlife.
Now that we all understand a little bit more about how unique and interesting opossums are, as well as how they can be beneficial to have around, we hope that more people can learn to live in harmony with these often misunderstood animals. Now, if only they could hop…

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