Feb 10 2011
Last week groundhogs had their day. This week possums are vying for the spotlight.
Possums have come up five times in the last seven days and the more I’ve looked into them, the more intrigued I’ve become. Did you know that….?
- Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana) are North America’s only marsupial.
- Their ancestors were from South America but they split from them during the Cretaceous (age of the dinosaurs) and started moving north. They are still moving north and have now reached southern Canada.
- Possums are the size of a large housecat with a pointed snout, shaggy fur and a naked prehensile (grasping) tail. This one looks so cute because his ugliest features are not accentuated in his portrait. It helps that he didn’t smile for the camera.
- Possums have 50 teeth in their little mouths and look especially grisly when they smile. (Adult humans have 32 teeth.)
- They often smile where they’re afraid and always smile when they “play possum” in which they pretend to be dead by rolling over, drolling with an ugly smile, tongue hanging out, eyes closed and a slowed heartbeat. They can be catatonic like this for four to six hours!
- Possums will eat just about anything and become ill if they don’t have an extremely diverse diet.
- They are prolific. The female’s pouch has 13 nipples for up to 13 live young. This makes up for their survival disadvantages which are…
- Possums have very low intelligence, poor eyesight (nearsighted), poor hearing and a slow bumbling gait. Any possum who decides to eat roadkill easily becomes roadkill himself.
- Possums are normally nocturnal but in times of short food supply you may see them foraging during the day. That’s when Cris Hamilton found this one on her deck eating fallen bird seed.
- Their thin ears and naked tail are especially prone to frostbite. Joan Silagy saw a frostbitten possum at Blue Marsh last week.
- Possums can live well in the city. Last Saturday night I saw a one on my city street just after hearing how possums invaded someone’s home (inside the walls!) in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. That double-whammy started my possum streak.
- Virginia opossums live only about two years in the wild because they face so many predators and the challenge of winter. The ARL Wildlife Rehabilitation Center has a possum missing an ear and half its tail because a dog attacked it. (See his thank-you card here which you receive after sponsoring him here.)
- The possum’s enemies expanded his range. Southerners who liked possum stew took them to California for food during the Great Depression.
I could go on and on about possums but I’ll leave you with this Possum Celebrity Moment: A cross-eyed possum at the Leipzig Zoo has so captured the hearts of the German public that the zoo has had to improve her display so that more people can see her — and she’s not even on display yet!
(photo by Cris Hamilton)