By Terri Estes
You have probably seen an opossum rummaging through your garbage or scampering near the side of the road at night, their eyes lit up, reflecting the ongoing traffic. More likely, you have seen an opossum belly up in the road as roadkill, a hapless victim of the asphalt’s cruelty. We share our neighborhoods with opossums, more commonly known as possums. These quiet, nocturnal creatures are here among us, but they are shy and keep to themselves.
An adult possum usually weighs between four and 12 lbs and measures between 15 and 20 inches. They have soft grayish fur, small ears, a pointy snout and a long, scaly tail. The possum is the only marsupial native to North America. A marsupial, despite being a mammal, differs from most mammals in its reproductive strategy. These unique creatures have brief gestational periods and complete the nurturing of their offspring within pouches that enclose their teats, as exemplified by the most well-known marsupial, the kangaroo.
Possum babies are born after about 13 days in the womb. Then they have to make their way to the pouch and latch on to a teat. There they will stay for up to three months or until they get too big, and the pouch gets too crowded. Once they emerge from the pouch, they make their way onto their mother’s back, where they will hitch-hike for another two months before going out on their own. Possums only live about two years on average (four in captivity). This is probably why they have two litters a year with an average of eight babies per litter. Like kangaroos, these babies are called joeys.
Possums are harmless and just like to be left alone. They have sharp teeth but are reluctant to use them. Their biggest line of defense is “playing possum.” This is a reflexive condition where, when threatened, a possum’s body goes limp, their eyes open, their tongue hangs out and they excrete a vile smelling liquid in hopes of deterring predators or to defuse an animal’s territorial attack instinct. When a possum is in this involuntary state it will not respond no matter what the predator does. It can be bitten, carried or dropped but the possum will not respond and feels no pain. This comatose state can last for 20 minutes to a few hours.
Aside from knocking over our garbage cans and making a mess, possums are very beneficial neighbors to have. Yes, if they have access to trash, or pet food, they will happily take it. However, their natural diet consists of insects and other bugs such as slugs and snails, and small animals such as mice, voles and rats. They also eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. But they eat tons of bugs. Possums can sometimes be perceived as nuisances, but we can coexist with them. They are slow moving creatures and are not a threat to our pets or families. They do not carry diseases, but eat disease carrying pests such as rats, mice, roaches and yes, ticks. They eat lots of ticks.
Having a possum as your neighbor is a reason to rejoice, as you’d likely prefer their presence over that of mice or ticks!