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Virginia Opossum

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Possum and Brood

Virginia Opossum
Order: Didelphimorphia
Family: Didelphidae
Genus: Didelphis
Species: D. Virginiana

The Virginia opposum is the only marsupial living in North America, and they’re one of the oddest-looking, slowest moving mammals ever. They’ve become sort of a folk hero in America, because of their penchant for annually devouring an average of 5,000 of the lyme bacteria carrying black legged ticks, which make the mistake of hitching a ride on the the possum’s low slung body. The ticks pick up the borellia burgdorferi lyme disease bacteria, along with other diseases, from rodents, and then infect other mammals, such as you, your dog or your horse. Unfortunately for the ticks, and contrary to the possum’s disheveled appearance, they are great groomers, and may harvest up to 90 percent of the ticks who climb aboard.

Possums have been around for an astounding 70 million years, so their ancestors were there to commiserate with the Cretaceous dinosaurs who got zapped by the meteor which slammed into the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time possums live very short lives, typically two to three years, partly thanks to predators like dogs, cats and people. Their reproduction rate makes up for this, with a twelve day gestation period, and large litters of 5 to 13. They're more intelligent than your dog or cat, and possibly as smart as your pig.

The young are tiny, barely a gram and a half, hairless and pink, and they’re called joeys. They spend about two months in mom’s pouch, their mouths literally stuffed with a milk swollen nipple, afterwards growing large enough to get off the nipple, and graduating to clinging to mom’s back as she moves about. The young themselves are sexually mature at six months.  Possums are prolific, often mating twice a year and delivering litters in February and July. Females have two vaginal tracts, which the males match with a bifurcated penis. As if that were not odd enough, possums have those tiny pink feet, each of which has opposable thumbs. Add a pretty bow to their head, and they’d be all set for the stage.

The opossum is a museum exhibit of extremely strange and disjointed features. It has 50 teeth, the most of any mammal, and it is resistant to rabies and most toxins like snake bite. Pity the poor rattler, copperhead or moccasin who bites a possum, only to have the possum turn the tables and eat the snake! Possums have a low body temperature, which gives them a great immune system, and makes them resistant to viruses. Their tails are prehensile and can be used to drag leaves and sticks home to the nest, or to hang for brief periods by their tails from tree branches.

Possums may growl or hiss when confronted, but they appear to play dead when seriously stressed or threatened by predators. However, before you start nominating them for academy awards, the process seems to be involuntary. The possum faints, slouches to his side, with his mouth open, causing his tongue to loll outside the mouth, and his anus emits an odor so repugnant, it draws flies and dissuades would be diners, who depart in disgust. Even their heart rate and respiration slows down.

Possums are very beneficial, as they’re one of nature’s greatest sanitation engineers, eating practically everything from insect pests to moles and shrews, snails and slugs, worms and snakes, frogs, birds, fruits, nuts, our leftovers and carrion. They may resemble large rats, but they are not related, and do eat both rats and mice.

They also live anywhere, in tree cavities, under porches, in basements, attics and garages. They’re not much at digging, so they often take over abandoned burrows. They have great memories for where food is located or stored, and they’re very social with other possums, without being territorial about it. If you live in an area infested with ticks, you can’t have a better neighbor than a possum. Climate change is encouraging some possums to brave the North Country, and some folks are putting out possum boxes with old blankets and towels, to help these non-hibernators, make it through winter.

Just like humans and other creatures, It is possible for some opossums to carry diseases, such as leptospirosis, tuberculosis, relapsing fever, tularemia, spotted fever, toxoplasmosis, coccidiosis, trichomoniasis, and Chagas disease. Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM) is a neurological disorder in horses, caused by a parasite. The opossum and a parasite called Sarcocystis neurona have been implicated, although current research suggests other hosts (such as raccoons and skunks) and other parasites may be involved in disease transmission. The fact remains that opossums carry far fewer zoonotic diseases than other critters, and usually make up for it in their heavy impact on ticks. 

Steve Hall

WEndy and PossumPossum RangeAShley and Possum
Wendy with Possum - Range by Wiki - Ashley with Possum
> Click to enlarge photos

Possom babies
Possum orphans being rehabbed for Release, by Steve Hall

Possum by Dr. Greg Gulbranson

A good look at one of our possum's teeth by Dr. Greg Gulbranson

Jason with Possum

Jason with Possum
Meghan with PossumAdirondack Mammals, by Steve Hall
Meghan with Possum

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