Is It Possum or Opossum?

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Is It Possum or Opossum?

Did you know that a possum and an opossum are two different animals? The words are pronounced the same as the o in opossum is silent. Possums live in Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and China, while the opossums are native to North America, particularly in the continental United States and southern Canada. One key difference in the possum and the opossum is their tails, the possum has a thick and furry tail much like a squirrel’s while the opossum has coarse hair covering its body up to its bare tail. The opossum resembles a large rat; and depending on its species will weigh anywhere from a few ounces to over twenty pounds; compared to the possum which has an average weight of five pounds. There is only one subspecies of the opossum in North America known as the Virginia opossum and is simply referred to as opossum, it weighs between 8.8 to 13.2 pounds and has an average length of 2.5 feet from nose to tail, much larger that the possum. Possums have a rounded body with a thick brown or golden coat and brown eyes. The opossums have a pointed white face, black eyes, jagged teeth, and coarse fur, which is usually dark gray, but could be cinnamon or white.

When faced with potential danger the opossum runs, growls, belches, urinates, and defecates; when all else fails, they essentially enter a comatose state and play dead. They roll over, become stiff, close their eyes (or stare with their eyes open) and show their 50 small teeth, they also secrete a foul-smelling fluid. The state can last anywhere from two minutes to six hours. This behavior is highly effective in keeping them save from passing predators. This behavior is more common in younger opossums; adults are more likely to stand up to their enemies or simply run away at a speed of up to 4 miles per hour. This is where the term “playing possum” comes from. On the other hand, possums are extremely friendly and have no reservations in walking up to strangers, which unfortunately makes them an easy target to predators.

You might not like their rat like appearance, but the opossums actually have a lot going for them; they have a natural tolerance to snake venom, as well as the poison from scorpions and bees. They possess a remarkable ability to find food and to remember where it is. They eat rodents, snakes, insects, snails, birds, eggs, frogs, plants, fruits, and grains. If given the opportunity they will also eat human food, trash, and pet food. Opossums are rarely carriers of rabies due to their naturally low body temperature. However, opossums can pass Salmonella to humans through their excrement; they can also spread fleas to domestic animals.

Their tails are nearly as long as the opossum themselves and allows them to grasp, carry and wrap themselves around things like tree branches. They can hang from their tails but not for an extended amount of time. Did you know that female opossums are called Jills and like a kangaroo carry their joeys in their pouches? As the babies grow, they will climb in and out of the pouch, sometimes catching a ride on their mom’s back. Opossums are quite proficient swimmers; they can swim both on the surface and underwater by using their limbs and tail to move through the water.

Next time you see an opossum (possum) do not judge him by his appearance, think of him as free pest control.


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