You may have seen them waddling around the neighborhood: white faces, pointy noses, about the size of a cat with a tail that looks like a rat’s. The Virginia opossum is much maligned, says Terri Muzik, longtime rehabber at Wildlife Care Association in Sacramento, and it really deserves better. Muzik shares fun facts about these fascinating creatures to help us get to know our neighbors better.
Irv, clean up on aisle nine. “Opossums are nature’s garbage men,” says Muzik. They eat everything from insects, rodents, frogs, eggs, fruits and grains to table scraps, pet food and carrion (roadkill). They’re prone to metabolic bone disease and have a high need for calcium, so they eat every part of the animal, including the skeleton, she says, helping to keep the environment clean and healthy.
They make great dinner guests—they’ll eat your garden pests. Forget the snail and slug bait; these garden pests are some of opossums’ favorite snacks. They’ll hunt them at night and help keep your garden gastropod free.
Rabies beware! The opossum’s body is a hostile environment. When threatened, opossums can look alarming. They open their mouths, hiss and drool, and Muzik says some people mistakenly think they’re rabid. But the opossum’s body temperature is too low to provide a suitable environment for rabies, and they are rarely carriers of the disease.
You can’t beat their reaction to stress. If stress becomes too much for an opossum, it’ll go into an involuntary catatonic state—what we identify as playing dead—that can last up to four hours, says Muzik. To complement the comatose state, they release a foul odor that smells like they’re dead, discouraging predators from eating them.
Check out the opossum’s prehensile tail. Opossums don’t hang from their tails to sleep. But they do use them for balance and as a fifth appendage. “They’ll use their tail almost like a hand, and they’ll gather up leaves and things and carry them in their tail to build their nest,” says Muzik.
Poof! Just like that, the ticks are gone. An opossum eats as many as 5,000 ticks a year, says Muzik. Combine the efforts of all our opossums and that’s a significant contribution to controlling our tick population.
No one else can say they’re the only marsupial in North America. Surprise! Opossums are not related to rodents but rather the cute marsupials of Australia: the koala and the kangaroo. Like all marsupials, opossums raise their young in their pouch, and they’re our continent’s only pouched species.
They have the best kid leashes ever. Once the young climb into mom’s pouch, they swallow one of her 13 nipples, firmly attaching themselves to mom, says Muzik.
Soccer moms, they may just beat your minivan. Opossums often have litters of 10 to 12 babies. “Mom’s their taxi,” says Muzik of opossum moms that carry all their babies heaped on their back. “She’s a perfect soccer mom hauling the kids all around town.”
Talk about survival of the fittest. When an opossum mom is hit by a car, it’s entirely possible the babies are still alive in her pouch, says Muzik. “We’ve had people on multiple occasions bring us an opossum carcass, and if the babies are viable, we can do a pretty good job at raising them.”