Opossums have an unfairly bad reputation. They’re slandered as pests and vermin. They’ll eat your cat food or rummage through your garbage, people say. They’ll trample your garden, people say. They’re just ugly. And that rat-like tail!
The truth is, though, that this slow, shambly and sometimes unkempt-looking critter is an interesting and beneficial neighbor that doesn’t deserve so much hate. In fact, even if it’s digging around in your garbage, it deserves your love, because its presence has real benefits for humans. Read on to find out why you should admire and respect North America’s only marsupial.
1. They fight ticks
Opossums are tick-killing machines. In an era when Lyme disease is a serious and growing concern, we should appreciate the fact that these animals—who are fastidious groomers— swallow around 95 percent of the ticks that attach themselves during the opossum’s wanderings through the forest. That adds up to a lot of dead ticks (around 5,000 per season per opossum).
2. Nursery rhyme names
Male opossums are called jacks, and females are called jills. And just like kangaroos, the babies are called joeys.
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3. They’re one of a kind
Opossums are North America’s only marsupial. Marsupials are an order that includes Australia’s koalas, kangaroos, and wombats—and they’re interesting because they carry their undeveloped young in a pouch, where they drink their mother’s milk and grow big enough to finally venture outside.
4. Opossum reproductive weirdness
Both male and female opossums’ reproductive organs are split into two separate parts. So a ill has two uteruses, which are both fertilized during reproduction, and both develop fetuses that will later crawl up her body into her pouch. That’s pretty cool.
5. Their faces mirror our own existential angst
Because who doesn’t feel like this from time to time?
6. They carry their babies on their backs
Mama opossums are a marsupial Catbus for their joeys. When the joeys are big enough to spend time outside their mother’s pouch, they crawl onto her back for a joy ride as she lumbers around in search of food or shelter.
7. They can look fierce, but they’re really not
If they’re feeling threatened, an opossum will open its jaws wide in a fierce gape, showing its sharp teeth, and hiss. They generally don’t want to fight, though. It’s a big show designed to get a threat to back off. So if an opossum ever gapes at you, give it a wave and keep walking. It’s not going to lunge at you (unless you see babies around, which could cause a jill to try to bite).
8. They are rightly called ‘trash cats’
Opossums will pretty much eat anything. In your yard, they’ll hoover up snakes, bugs, rats or mice, or slugs and fallen fruit in your garden—but they’re also not above exploring your trash can for some delicious coffee grounds or eggshells. Opossums can’t contract botulism, and they’re able to eat carrion. So whether they find trash or roadkill, they’re always able to make it a meal.
9. Their mighty tails
That pink, rat-like tail that makes so many people shudder is actually like a fifth limb for opossums. They use it to haul things or to climb trees.
10. The brilliance of playing dead
“Playing possum” is a well-known phrase that came out of the opossum’s habit of keeling over when scared, going rigid, and foaming at the mouth. The interesting thing about this is that opossums don’t choose to play dead. It’s a last-ditch reflexive response to threat that can last for up to four hours. And it really does work. If you see a “dead” opossum, leave it alone, because it really might just have just been scared and you wouldn’t want to make things worse for it.
11. They make funny sounds
Opossums are pretty quiet usually, but if joeys are separated from their mothers, they’ll make a little sound that sounds like a sneeze.
12. Baby possums are the cutest
Right up there with kittens or puppies. 10/10 would snuggle.
13. Silent communication method
A major way that opossums communicate is via scent. When a jill is about to give birth, she’ll lick her fur so that her very tiny offspring can sniff their way up to her pouch.
14. They have an excellent sense of smell
Opossums aren’t the best at seeing or hearing, but that sharp sense of smell they use as joeys to find their mother’s pouch lasts into adulthood. They use to find food during their mostly nocturnal ramblings.
15. Incredibly short gestation period
Opossums have a litter twice a year. Since their gestation period is only 13 days, joeys are tiny, blind and hairless when they start their dangerous crawl up to their mother’s pouch. Sadly, most of a jill’s offspring don’t survive.
16. They have immune system superpowers
Because of their low body temperature, opossums are resistant to catching rabies. They are also resistant to snake venom, so they can snack on snakes if they can catch them. Opossums also are immune to scorpion and bee stings .They truly have an amazing constitution.
17. They’re an ancient species
The last common ancestor of the modern opossum lived 23 million years ago.
18. They have an impressive number of teeth
Opossums have 50 (yes, 50) teeth. That’s common among marsupials, who by-and-large, have many more teeth than placental mammals. Being North America’s only marsupial, means they reign supreme when it comes to number of teeth.
19. A presentation at court
A commander of one of Christopher Columbus’ ships trapped an opossum in 1492 and took it back to Spain to show King Ferdinand. For years after, the opossum was the object of horrified fascination for Europeans.
20. What’s in a name?
Although they share a common name (“possum”) with a marsupial in Australia, they belong to an entirely different different species. (Pictured: A common brushtail possum from Australia.)
21. Champion tree climbers
Opossums don’t nest in trees, but they’re adept climbers who scramble into the canopy to escape predators or to find a snack.
22. They’re so adaptable
With their ability to find shelter in cities (check your basement or attic) or in the woods, and their love of just about any food they can find, the adaptable opossum is a true survivor.
23. They’re cute (really!)
If you can look past your reflexive horror of rat-like creatures, you’ll see that opossums are actually adorable. Their ponderous waddle, their little pink nose, and their expressive faces are just so cute.
24. Those little hands
An opossum’s hands are strangely human-like, with grippy fingers and opposable thumbs. They’re as brightly pink as their noses.
Opossums are wild animals, so don’t feed them or trap them to keep as a pet. If you see an opossum that could be playing dead, leave it alone so it can recover If you find an injured possum, or a joey without its mother (mothers tend not to come back if a baby falls off her back), call your local wildlife rescue center to find out what to do.. Above all, count yourself lucky if you get a visit from an opossum every once in awhile. They’re out there ridding the environment of ticks and real vermin, and they really just want to be left alone.
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