Yes, they’re ugly and they hiss like cats and dash out in the middle of the road and made you almost swerve into a tree that one time because they decided to play dead. We’ve all got that story.
But really, you have it all wrong. For one thing, they’re good to have around. Honestly. You’ll see why in a minute. And they’re opossums, not possums. Possums are a completely different animal that live down under. Opossums aren’t even rodents. They’re marsupials.
There are actually several dozen different species of opposums, but the one we are used to seeing is the Virginia opossum, or common opossum. They were dubbed “opossum” by Captain John Smith of Jamestown Colony, Virginia, from the Algonquin name “apasum”, which means “white animal”. Captain Smith wrote that “An Opossum hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is the bigness of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth and sucketh her young".
Opossums are originally from South America, but they migrated north about 3 million years ago during the Great American Interchange when previously isolated North and South American species migrated across the newly formed Isthmus of Panama. Genetic research suggests that all of today’s living marsupials actually originated in South America--the opposum is just the only marsupial one to have thrived in the United States and Canada.
In case you’ve forgotten your middle school life science lessons, Google’s dictionary says a marsupial is “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.” So opossums are one of the animals who carry around their babies in a pouch like kangaroos. Baby opossums are born after a mere 11-13 day gestational period. Mothers give birth to as many as 20 babies at one time that are so small, all 20 of them could fit into a teaspoon! Fewer than half of them typically survive, many never even reaching the pouch. As the babies get older, they start to move in and out of their mother’s pouch and will often ride on her back as she hunts.
Let’s talk about that playing dead thing real fast, before we get into why opossums are so great, since that’s the one thing everyone “knows” about them. “Playing possum” is actually an involuntary defense mechanism on the part of the opossum. When it becomes extremely afraid, it enters a catatonic state, making it appear dead, and less appealing for predators. But opossums actually have no control over when it happens.
Okay. So why do we like opposums? Besides the fact that they’ve been around since the dinosaurs, have a prehensile tail that they can use to wrap around tree limbs (though it is a misconception that they hang upside down), and have more teeth than any other North American land mammal--50 to be exact.
If you’re still not swayed, here are the reasons why opossums really are good guys. First, they’re little tick vacuums. They eat the ticks that try to feed on them and they eat the ticks that try to feed on us. One opossum can eat as many as 5,000 ticks each season. And ticks aren’t the only pest opossums take care of for us. They eat cockroaches, snails, rats, mice, dead animals, over-ripe fruit, and snakes (including venomous ones like copperheads and rattlers). They’re pretty much Mother Nature’s yard exterminator.
“But what about rabies”, you ask? “I saw one foaming at the mouth--it was clearly sick”. Any mammal can get rabies. However, it’s extremely rare for an opossum to contract rabies. It is believed that their lower body temperatures, between 94 and 97 degrees, makes it difficult for the virus to survive. While it is possible to contract other diseases from an opossum, as long as you do not attempt to pet or get too close to an opossum (or any wild animal for that matter), and you do not handle any dead opossums directly, your likelihood of contracting a disease is extremely slim. (Oh, and the foaming at the mouth thing? That’s another of the opossum’s natural defense mechanisms. By excreting excess saliva, other animals think it is sick and will leave it alone).
And if all of that is not enough to convince you, how about the fact that their blood contains a peptide that can neutralize snake venom? With further research, their blood might help scientists develop a universal anti-venom, saving lives all over the world.
If that doesn’t change your opinion of opossums from despised, rodent, road-kill to beloved, potential super-hero, yard exterminator, I don’t know what will.