The Opossum: Snoqualmie Valley’s Misunderstood Animal Superhero

[Article by contributing writer Melissa Grant, wildlife enthusiast, North Bend resident and pet trainer at Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs]

The poor Virginia Opossum has an image problem. Most everything else around here with fur gets “cute woodland creature” designation, but the misunderstood opossum is seen as rat like, dirty and mean. However, after reading about North America’s only marsupial – a mammal of an order whose members are born incompletely developed and are typically carried and suckled in a pouch on the mother’s belly – I’m convinced they are one of nature’s overlooked super heroes. 

John Smith, founder of the American colony Jamestown, was the first to write about the animal and may have kicked off its bad reputation. Said Smith:

“…. hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the creature, known by Algonquian term “oppassum,” which simply means white animal.

Much more than the color of their fur, they have some unique attributes that make them a very important member of our local ecosystem. A scavenger, they eat nearly everything. Their diet consists of dead animals, rodents, insects, snails, slugs, birds, eggs, frogs, plants, fruits and grains. They also eat garbage, dog food and cat food. They have a precise need for calcium and phosphorus, which leads them to eat skeletons of rodents and road kill they consume and can cause metabolic bone disease if they don’t get enough.  

This habit of eating EVERYTHING makes them a welcome addition around the house and garden. They’ll help keep a garden free of slugs and snails and are competition for rodents for food. In fact, they will likely kill rodents they find in their territory. In addition, they eat ticks and are thought to kill and eat about 5,000 a season. This, theoretically, should reduce the overall population of dangerous ticks in a given area. 

There are many species of Opossum, but only one native to the United States: the Virginia Opossum, named for the state in which early colonists first observed the animal. Not originally native to the west coast, they expanded westward in the early 1900’s, likely as a food source or as pets. Once widely hunted and consumed in the US, a traditional southern dish in South Carolina serves it with sweet potatoes. President Jimmy Carter is said to have hunted opossum and other small game and President Benjamin Harrison had two as pets. Little is known about Mr. Reciprocity and Mr. Protection, but I’d like to believe they lived with him in the White House. 

From nose to the tip of their tails, they average about 2.5 feet long. About the size of a cat, the males (Jacks) weigh up to 14 pounds and the females (Jill’s) around 8 pounds.  They have 50 razor sharp teeth more than any other North American land mammal. Their young are referred to as joeys, just like their Australian marsupial cousins, and a group of opossums is called a passel.

Female opossums have two vaginas and male opossums have a two-pronged penis for each one. Therefore, it is no surprise that often females give birth to a very large number of young, sometimes 25 honeybee sized babies! But only half will survive and attach to one of her thirteen teats. Breeding can begin in December and continue through October with most infants born between the months of February and June. Females have one to three litters a year. The female will carry and nurse her young in her marsupium (pouch) until they are about 2 to 3 months old; then carry them on her back another 1 to 2 months whenever they are away from the den.

Good climbers, they often den in trees. They have prehensile tails which are adapted for grasping and wrapping around things like tree limbs. The opossum can hang from its tail for short periods of time, but it is a myth that they sleep hanging upside down. My favorite attribute is that they can become cross eyed when overweight due to fatty deposits behind their eyes. Thank goodness that doesn’t happen to humans.

What isn’t a myth is the animal’s ability to “play possum.” Largely silent otherwise, when threatened the opossum will run, growl, belch, urinate and defecate. If that gross display doesn’t work, they take it to a whole new level. In an involuntary reaction triggered by extreme fear, they fall over and appear to be dead. They even emit a foul odor, so they smell dead! This catatonic state can last for up to four hours and is effective in warding off predators who are looking for a live meal.

Opossums have a couple of superpowers, too. They have partial or total immunity against the venom produced by rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and other pit vipers. There is a peptide in their blood that neutralizes snake venom so that it has no effect on their bodies. Scientists are studying this protein to see if it could help snakebite victims.  In addition, they rarely have rabies. Even though it is possible for any mammal to get rabies, their slightly lower body temperature makes it difficult for the disease to thrive.

Unfortunately, for this little miracle animal, senescence – the condition or process of deterioration with age – is rapid. The opossum lifespan is unusually short for a mammal of its size, usually only one to two years in the wild and four or more years in captivity. 

So, if you see one of nature’s janitors around, let it be and he or she will help keep the area around your home pest free!

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