24 reasons we love opossums (and you should, too!)

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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.

Virginia Opposum
ArendTrent/istockphoto

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).

Opossum
galinast/istockphoto

2. Nursery rhyme names

Male opossums are called jacks, and females are called jills. And just like kangaroos, the babies are called joeys.

Wary Opossum
AwakenedEye/istockphoto

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.

Baby Possum
timharman/istockphoto

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.

Opossum in leaves
EEI_Tony/istockphoto

5. Their faces mirror our own existential angst

Because who doesn’t feel like this from time to time?

A mother opossum with its four babies on the pavement
lillybell/istockphoto

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.

The Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana, on white
Farinosa/istockphoto

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).

Possum is tearing and ribbing apart garbage bag
Florida Chuck/istockphoto

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.

Baby Opossum
JasonOndreicka/istockphoto

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.

Opossum
ScrappinStacy/istockphoto

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.

Wary Opossum
AwakenedEye/istockphoto
Baby opossum
JoanBudai / istockphoto

12. Baby possums are the cutest

Right up there with kittens or puppies. 10/10 would snuggle.

Baby Opossum
JasonOndreicka/istockphoto

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.

Virginia Opossum (didelphis virginiana) face
humblebleufrog photo/istockphoto

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.

Baby Possum Yawning
Bsheridan1959/istockphoto

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.

Young North American opossum (Didelphis virginiana) sits on a fence near the house.
irin717/istockphoto

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.

Pregnant  Virginia Opossum Female (Didelphis virginiana) or common opossum—the only marsupial (pouched mammal) found in the United States and Canada. Isolated on white background
irin717/istockphoto

17. They’re an ancient species

The last common ancestor of the modern opossum lived 23 million years ago.

Opossum  (Didelphis marsupialis)
johnaudrey/istockphoto

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.

Young North American opossum (Didelphis virginiana) goes on a white background. Isolated
irin717/istockphoto

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.

Brush-Tailed Possum in a tree
seraphic06/istockphoto

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.)

Opossum in Tree
stevelenzphoto/istockphoto

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.

Adult female Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), commonly known as the North American opossum  on the fence
irin717/istockphoto

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.

Virginia Opossum foraging for food in grass
leekris/istockphoto

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.

Virginia Opossum at Night
randimal/istockphoto

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.

Opossum Walks Across a Fence
mtruchon/istockphoto

Finally

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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24 reasons we love opossums (and you should, too!)

Kris Collingridge

Kris Collingridge is MediaFeed’s syndication strategist. She has worked as a print and digital journalist and editor for nearly 20 years. She was arts & entertainment editor at Seattle-based news magazine ParentMap, then a producer and editor at MSN, where she drove audience engagement as programmer of the Travel section.

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