Featured Creature: Opossum

What creature is the only marsupial in North America, plays dead when threatened, and has a whopping 50 teeth? 

The Opossum! 

Virginia Opossum (Photo: NC Wildlife Resources via NaturalSciences.org)

I am currently in my senior year studying at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA). Last semester here began with a bit of a rocky start. Within the first two weeks of school, there were COVID scares on campus, a school shooter threat, and a process of adapting to the constantly changing COVID guidelines in the classroom. In addition to all of this, we students juggle double majors and multiple minors, work at least one job, and carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. Needless to say, campus morale was in need of a great big boost by the end of September. 

Luckily, an opossum came on the MCLA scene and captured the admiration and fascination of campus residents. The opossum originally came to visit our school as a result of campus apartment residents leaving their trash bags to pile up on their back steps. He stuck around, and we all fell in love with this lovely little creature (“we” mainly refers to students; I’m not so sure that the Residential Life & Housing department was very thrilled). 

Sadly, the original MCLA Opossum passed away in a tragic incident involving an oncoming vehicle on Ashland Street. However, not too long after a vigil was held for the beloved unofficial mascot of the campus apartments (attended by both students and faculty), a new opossum appeared and settled into life at MCLA. Since then, students have been capturing videos and images of opossum sightings for the @mcla_opossum Instagram page. 

MCLA student Ian Crombie owns and runs the account. “I’d say the opossum has brought a lot of humor to campus life at night; I know a lot of students in the townhouses are excited when they’re walking at night ’cause the opossum is almost always out. I think the page itself has brought a lot of joy and it makes people smile, it’s nice to have a townhouse mascot of sorts,” he said.

“I can confirm that his name is Douglas,” Ian added. Read on to learn more about Douglas and his relatives! 

The Only North American Marsupial

Did you know that opossums are the only marsupial species in North America? Newborn opossums are about the size of a honeybee and grow to be about the size of a housecat in adulthood. In need of nurturing and protection, they spend the first 2-3 months of their lives in their mother’s pouch. A single litter can be as large as 20 opossums! After the first few months, the young opossums move out of the pouch and hitch a ride on their mother’s back.

Photo by Frank Lukasseck, Getty Images

Social Distancing Before It Was Cool 

Strongly independent, opossums prefer to live a solitary life. If you see an opossum going through your garbage, it’ll likely be alone. If you see a group of animals going through your trash, it’s more likely that a family of raccoons decided to grace you with their presence. 

If you come across a cranky opossum, it will likely hiss, growl, and bare its teeth at you. (Opossums have more teeth than humans… 50 to our 32 human teeth! That’s pretty amazing considering their small size.) 

If you do come across a cranky opossum, it’ll probably be at night because our little marsupial friend is nocturnal. Willing to travel up to 2 miles for food, opossums love to eat carrion, grass, nuts, fruit, mice, birds, insects, snails, corn, worms, and snakes. Ticks are also one of their favorite snacks, which I think earns the opossum multiple brownie points. As for a fast food option, the opossum will love whatever they can find in the garbage. (Let this be a reminder to those of you who leave your trash bags on the back steps. Opossums may come to visit and scavenge through it.)

On the flip side, opossums are prey to a whole host of predators, including humans. Yep, that’s right! Humans have been known to hunt and eat opossums. (Don’t get any ideas from this!)

Dogs, cats, and owls also like to get a taste of opossum meat now and then. At some point, this innovative species developed a strategy of “playing possum” or “faking death” to avoid getting preyed upon when they sense a threat nearby. Opossums that escape predation typically live for about 2-4 years. 

North American Opossum with winter coat (Photo by Cody Pope via Wikimedia)

A Treehouse Dweller

Originally native to the Southeastern United States and Central America, the opossum’s range expanded to cover most of the U.S. as Europeans occupied stolen Indigenous land and brought their pet opossums with them. 

The opossum made the best of its situation, and settled into most environments it was introduced to. No matter where it goes, the opossum likes to maintain a standard of cleanliness. The Lewis & Clark National Park National Historic Trail webpage states that “Since they constantly self-groom with their tongues and paws, they’re one of the cleanest critters you’ll come across.” 

Trees are the opossum’s preferred habitat, and it has a prehensile tail (one that can curl and grasp) that allows for better grip to climb up trunks with. When it’s time to sleep, the opossum will find a nice tree or already-existing animal den to nest in. 

From a treehugger for the tree dwellers!

By Abby Abrahamson