The North American opossum, also called the Virginia opossum, is the only marsupial native to the United States. They are commonly (and incorrectly) referred to as “possums,” but this name actually belongs to a marsupial species that lives in Australia. There are other misconceptions about our unique American animal, which we will now attempt to clear up.
Fierce or Cowardly?
Nature certainly has designed opossums to look intimidating. Their claws are extremely sharp, and when approached they open their mouths wide, revealing an impressive array of teeth–fifty of them! They will hiss at you and slaver like a rabid animal. And if you were to ignore all these signals and continue to approach one that has no available means of escape . . . it will keel over.
It may look like the opossum had a heart attack and died on the spot, and that is what it wants you to think. This defense method is a built-in reaction to fear and is triggered automatically, as opposed to being an “act” that it voluntarily performs. The purpose of this trick is to convince predators – for whom “the kill” is part of the fun – that it is already dead. For good measure, its anal gland emits a smelly secretion that adds to the illusion that it is nothing more than a rotting corpse.
Opossums will continue to play dead for hours, somehow emerging from this unconscious state after the perceived danger has passed. How they are able to tell when to awake remains a mystery to this day. This threat-avoidance behavior has led to the formation of the expression “playing possum,” even though it is a characteristic of the opossum instead.
Prehensile Tails and Opposable Thumbs
In addition to being the only marsupial, the opossum is the only native non-primate in the United States to have a prehensile tail and opposable thumbs. These thumbs, however, are on its hind feet and are used in climbing. The tail may give support and assist in climbing as well, or it may be used for wrapping around items the opossum wishes to carry along, such as food or nesting material.
It is not likely that you will see opossums hanging by their tails on an overhead tree branch, as in Disney’s classic animated movie, Bambi. Only the young are able to support their weight in this fashion. Adults may be able to do so briefly, but they do not sleep in this position. Instead, they slumber within abandoned burrows or dens, as they prefer moving into ready-made housing rather than creating new ones.
Immunities and Diseases
A peptide found in opossum blood makes it immune to rattlesnake venom, as well as venom from several other types of snakes. This has led to testing for the development of an antivenom that humans could use.
Although they are not 100% immune to rabies, it is very rare for an opossum to contract this disease. Their body temperature is lower than that of most mammals, making it hard for the rabies virus to survive. Ironically, the opossum’s defense tactics mentioned earlier often give off the impression that the animal is exhibiting rabies symptoms.
Opossums are, however, frequent carriers of parasites such as fleas, ticks and mites, and may have the following transmissible diseases:
While bites and scratches are a common way for these diseases to be transmitted, some may even be delivered by being exposed to the animal’s feces. If you own horses, you will definitely want to keep opossums away because they may carry equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, which attacks horses’ central nervous systems.
Keep Them Away
Havahart® offers several products for opossum problems, whether you are trying to catch one that is visiting your property or repel them before they can do any damage. Our Spray Away® motion-activated sprinkler repellent is a safe option that uses no chemicals – only water – to drive all kinds of animals from your yard.
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