The Virginia Opossum, sometimes known as the North American Opossum, is simply called a possum by most folks and it’s one of the Finger Lakes Region’s most unusual inhabitants. It is also the oldest surviving mammal in North America, dating back some 70 million years, and is this continent’s only marsupial. It ranges from Central America and across North America east of the Rockies and into Ontario, Canada. The Native American name for opossum is derived from Algonquian and means “white animal” or “animal with a white face”. It was adopted into the English language during Colonial times.
An adult possum is about the size of a housecat and despite its rodent-like appearance, it is not related to rodents at all. Far from being cute, the possum has a face only its mother could love, which harbors a mouthful of 50 needle-sharp teeth – more than any other land mammal – and five pink finger-like toes on each foot, with opposing thumbs on its hind feet. Its prehensile tail is hairless, and enables the possum to hang upside-down from a tree branch by its tail.
Possums are noted for playing dead for defensive reasons but actually, that is an involuntary behavior. In reality, they just plain faint whenever they feel threatened. The coma ends when the threat no longer exists. That’s not to say that the possum won’t stand its ground. They’ve been known to hiss, snarl, growl, and bear their sharp teeth before playing dead as a last remaining option. Because the possum’s body temperature is lower than other mammals, it is immune to diseases like rabies and most snakebites.
Possums are omnivorous and eat a variety of plants and animals that range from fruits, grains, insects, and earthworms to roadkills, snakes, mice and other small animals. They also feed on garbage and pet food whenever either is available. They do not hibernate in winter but will seek shelter during prolonged spells of cold weather.
Marsupials give birth and nurse their babies in a pouch like a kangaroo, and like the kangaroo, baby possums are called joeys. They are no bigger than a lima bean at birth and remain in their mother’s pouch for more than two months before climbing onto her back. A female possum can have from one to three litters per year averaging about eight joeys. They strike out on their own by six months of age. The average lifespan of a possum in the wild is from two to three years.