The Awesome Opossum
by Jim Dunlap

Jim Dunlap     All too often, and I don't feel guilty about it, I sit on my couch on Sundays and watch mindlessly as people with tattooed-on smiles, and latest khaki fashions, read their prepared scripts about the wonders of the animal world. I watched the life story of the harbor seal last week and when all was told, they made it sound as if those seals spend their days simply trolling their home waters for sharks!

     We seem to know more about the seals and snow leopards than about the animals that live and die in the secluded, wooded crevices along Rowlett Creek and the neighborhood tributaries. We know they are there because one pops up occasionally on the back porch and is surprised by the light while dining on the dog or cat food.

     Here is one of the world's greatest survivors, the opossum. It is known to science as Didelphis virginiana, or if that is too much to take in try the Virginia opossum. It can best be described as the biggest, ugliest rat you have ever encountered! They are not even related. The opossum is the only marsupial, or animal with a pouch, that lives in North America. He is the size of a small dog or large cat with short legs and a pointy snout.

     Anatomically, the opossum is well adapted for its life of climbing things, whether it be trees or trash cans. Both hands and feet have clawless opposable thumbs. They grasp food and branches with great dexterity. Then there is that tail. It is body length, naked, muscular, and really does look like a rat. The tail is prehensile and they use it to assist in climbing. You might see a cartoon opossum hanging upside down asleep, but that never happens.

     Sense wise, their small, paper-thin Mickey Mouse ears enable them to hear extremely well. The opossum's snout is a powerfully sensitive organ. This animal has an excellent sense of smell. This is all the better to find the dead stuff my dear. The whiskers, like the nose, are also very sensitive. They are tactile, that is, the opossum uses them as a blind person uses a walking stick to feel his way along dark passageways. This can work against the opossum as well as for him. For example, his whiskers could guide him into a trap placed at the end of the passage. The irises of their eyes are black so they appear to be all pupil and they can see better in the dark than most animals. With his 50 teeth and very thin lips the face of the opossum carries a perpetually snarling expression, making him appear quite vicious, which he is not.

     If parenthood starts to get you down, consider this. Twice each year mother opossum gives birth to as many as 20 babies. They are so small that seven of them will fit in a teaspoon. The tiny, pink, hairless bits of flesh equipped only with minuscule front feet must leave the birth canal and navigate through four inches of thick fur to reach the stomach pouch. Once they arrive, the race is on to attach themselves to one of thirteen nipples. Even at this point nature is allowing only for the survival of the fittest, or in this case, those with the best sense of direction. Do the math!

     The next time you have a stomachache and the kids are getting on your nerves, think about the opossum. Nature provided this marsupial mother with a one-room house with a very small play yard that only extends from her neck to the base of her tail. She is a single parent with eight to thirteen kids that hang around the house all day with nothing in particular to do. There is no cooking in, so mom has to go out and eat every night. All the kids have to go along! At bedtime they all have to sleep in the same room. There is no such thing as "Possum Pampers" and not one of these children is potty trained!

     Her kids are home schooled and she stays busy. She tries to teach them the ways of the dark alleys, storm sewers, and how to eat without being eaten. Sometimes the dining room has added perils and the fact that two bright lights approaching fast on the road are not motorcycles and they should not try to run between them! She can only hope that they are paying attention when she sneaks up on a back porch and quickly consumes the dog food before old Rover gets wind of the family.

     When traveling, the kids hang on the fur with all four little hands and at the same time wrap their tails around mom's tail. Watching her try to run while carrying this load is like watching someone run with their pants around their knees. She has to put up with the kids refusing to eat dinner just because it has been dead for a week and not properly refrigerated.

     Although opossums prefer to dine on things that had parents, they will also eat fruit and vegetables. Opo, the opossum I raised when I was a young teacher, was very fond of grapes. We played a game where I gave her a grape. She held in one hand and daintily removed the skin with her teeth. Opossums will eat week-old road kill, but will peel apples and grapes; go figure! I gave her a second grape that she held in the other hand, and she then took turns removing the skin from one and then the other. I placed a third grape on the floor in front of her. She looked at the grape in one hand, then the grape in the other hand, and then the grape on the floor. She just did not know what to do. Opo put one grape down and picked up the other, look at them all, and then repeated the process. She kept this up for ten minutes!

     We have all heard that this cat-sized animal will play "possum" when attacked or threatened. He will actually go limp, complete with rolled back eyes, mouth open and tongue lolling out. It was first thought that this practice was some sort of defensive mechanism. The sudden death of the prey would somehow deter the predator from attacking. That would seem to make them even more susceptible to predation. Scientists now believe that when an opossum is attacked and in fear of his life; he simply faints. It is not intentional, but a weakness of intestinal fortitude!

     So, you do not really care if there is a kangaroo relative who visits you nightly. You would prefer they move on to a neighbor or stay in the creek. There are things you can do. First, do not feed Fido or Kitty on the back porch or in the garage. Opossums are the first to take advantage followed by raccoons and then skunks. Second, close up holes and close the garage door at night. They will enter any place that offers an opening at least as large as their heads. Third, and last resort, you can trap and remove them. For a small deposit fee you can borrow a live-catch trap from the Animal Control Department. Place the trap anywhere you find an edge. Opossums like to travel along a definable edge because they use their whiskers as a guide in total darkness. The side of the house or garage, the fence, or flower bed border will do nicely. You do not want to catch the neighborhood cats so you can use freshly sliced banana, apple, and crushed pecans for bait. When you catch the opossum you have two choices. The second, and one I prefer, is that you call the zoo, nature center, or museum and get a number for the local wildlife rehabilitation person. They will instruct you about safe release or could possibly release the animal for you.

     So far, it is estimated there are more opossums in urban and suburban areas than are living in the woods. Should our research and exploration find the opossum to be harmful, to be a carrier of disease for example, or on the other hand, should it be found that some part of the opossum's body cures a disease, or even should his meat or fur become widely sought after, then the opossum might very well suffer the same problems that has doomed so many wild creatures. For the present the Virginia opossum is a prime example of nature's ability to adapt her creatures for survival.


Jim Dunlap, jim.dunlap@pisd.edu

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