The Opossum: How Did This Marsupial Ended Up In North American

Introduction

There are probably a lot of people who are unaware that our nocturnal friend, the opossum, is a marsupial. Yep, they are in the same class of mammals as the kangaroos and many other Australia mammals. They belong to the infraclass of mammals called Marsupialia, where the females have a pouch to carry their young until they reach maturity. Some people believe they are in the same family as the rat because they look like giant rats but they are not in the Rodentia family that includes the rat, mouse, squirrel and other familiar rodents. Marsupials are considered to be the closest living relative of placenta mammals.

When wehear the word marsupials we generally think of animals living in Australia which is located a few thousand miles from North America. So, how did an animal with a pouch ended up halfway around the world separated from the rest of the marsupials and now lives in North America. The answer may surprise you.Read on.

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Opossum Facts: A Little Natural History

The habitat of opossums is pretty wide spread. It covers most of North America up into portion of Ontario and extends as far south through Central America to the top of South America. Opossums are generally found near swamps and on the banks of streams. They are solitary, arboreal animals so they spend a lot of their time in trees.

There are two species of opossums, the first and largest group is called the Virginia Opossum or North American Opossum and the second group is called the Southern Opossum. The Southern Opossum is sometimes called the Common Opossum. The Virginia Opossum ranges in length from 13 inches up to 37 inches and male opossum can weigh as much as 14 pounds. The female tops out at about 8 pounds. Generally, the larger opossums are found mostly in the cooler northern regions and the smaller ones are found near the tropic. Their fur is usually grayish in color.

The Southern Opossum has a habitat range from southern Mexico down to Bolivia in South America. They are pretty much the size of a domestic cat. These opossum spend most of their time on the ground instead of the tree as the Virginia Opossum does. The Southern Opossum’s fur is grayish with some reddish coloring blended in it.

Opossums have a few unusual features. They have a long hairless, pensile tail about 9 to 19 inches long. They are the only animals other than primates with an opposable thumb. The odd thing is located on their rear limbs, which give them the ability to hang upside down from tree limbs if they are not using their tail to hold on to the limb. The opossum has 5 to 9 babies one to three times a years and female raises them without any help from the father. The life span of an opossum is about 2 years in the wild and they can live up to four years in captivity.

Virginia Opossum with babies on her back
Virginia Opossum with babies on her back

The Opossum Unusual Defense Against Predators

Everyone is familiar with the phrase, “playing possum”. This is when an opossum plays dead or pretending to be injured to discourage predators from attacking them. When an opossum is in this state he is actually in a coma and can remain this way for up to four hours. It looks pretty convincing when you see one doing this fake death routine. His tongue is hanging out of its opened mouth lying on his side and his eyes are open. He also emits a putrid odor from his body with green fluid emanating from his anus. Animals will leave him alone and even us when we see him in that state. But on the other hand they can become ferocious when they are threaten sometimes.

How Did The Opossum Become A North America Marsupial

An opossum like mammal first appeared on the North America continent more than 65 million years ago after the extinction of the dinosaurs. Researchers have determined, based on fossil evidence, that around this time there were two groups of pouch bearing animals living in North America. These two large groups of marsupials migrated from North America down through Central America to South America. The migration came to an end when North America and South America separated during the Cretaceous Period. While in South America some of these animals migrated to the other continents when Antarctica and a course Australia were all joined with South America. Fossils found on these continents indicated these large bodies of land were once joined to South America about 65 million years ago.

Then about 20 million years ago all the North American marsupials went extinct and North America was later repopulated with two marsupials when the Isthmus of Panama formed about 3 million years ago to reconnect the two continents thus restarting the migration process. The two marsupials that migrated north from South America were the Virginia Opossum, presently found in the southeastern region of North American and the Southern Opossum found mostly in the region of Mexico. Some opossums are presently found in the western portion of the United States. They were introduced there during the Great Depression in 1929 as a source of food and have since been seen as far north as northwestern Canada. I am sure many of you have heard of opossum stew. I heard it is very good. Today these are the only marsupials living in North America and it is the only other place in the world besides Australia where marsupials live. These opossums are living were the marsupials originally lived before moving to Australia.

"Playing Possum" or dead
"Playing Possum" or dead

Conclusion

Marsupials such as kangaroos, Tasmanian devil, marsupial mouse and other animals of this class were not always living in Australia, as many people believe today. They originated from North America and eventually migrated there. Today the opossums are living where they all started in North America.

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Comments 17 comments

melpor profile image

melpor 2 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Sorry Danielle, a mistake on my part. Thanks for noticing the error.


Danielle 2 years ago

Rabbits are NOT rodents nor apart of the that family, it is a common mistake. Research is needed before writing They are a Lagomorph http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagomorpha


melpor profile image

melpor 4 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Perry the Cat, pandas are not marsupials. They are in the same family as the bear. Thanks for reading my hub.


Perry the Cat profile image

Perry the Cat 4 years ago from Mouskin, Texas

I was thinking Pandas were marsupials.


melpor profile image

melpor 5 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Docmo and Rhonda, thanks for the comment and for stopping by. Yesterday (25 MAR 2011) I saw an opossum in my backyard just before sunset a week after writing this article on this unusual animal.


Rhonda Waits profile image

Rhonda Waits 5 years ago from The Emerald Coast

Great hub and love the pictures. They are definitely a fascinating animal.

Sweet wishes Rhonda


Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK

superb biological and pre-historic facts. Love the writing and the pictures that go with it. Brilliant, melpor!


melpor profile image

melpor 5 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Vempauwriter, thanks for stopping by to read my hub and the comment you left. Good luck on your book.


Vernpaulwriter profile image

Vernpaulwriter 5 years ago from backwoods of Nevada

I love natural history, I am trying to write a book about the natural history of the now extinct giant ground sloth. Here in southern Nevada, where I am from, they have found numerous bones and fossils suggesting many lived here around the ice age. Loved your article.


melpor profile image

melpor 5 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Genna, thanks for stopping by to read my hub. The opossum can stay in a coma like state until the threat is removed, even if it takes four hours for the threat to disappear. In your case, the opossum does not see you as a threat anymore that is probably why he doesn't play possum anymore.


Genna East profile image

Genna East 5 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

"When a opossum is in this state he is actually in a coma and can remain this way for up to four hours."

I never knew this about our little friends.

They neglect to show this defensive mechanism, however, when we catch them trying to tumble open our garbage containers. We live in the country, and these little fellas visit, regularly. :) Excellent hub.


melpor profile image

melpor 5 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Powerpoe1' thanks for your comment and for stopping by to read my hub. I am not sure what you can do to keep opossums off your property. Just make sure all garage, especially food, is kept in a closed tight container that might help some.


Powerpoe1 profile image

Powerpoe1 5 years ago

What can be done to keep Opossums off your private property? I don't find them fascinating. I have tried fox urine and other things. Great hub! Please help~


melpor profile image

melpor 5 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Drbj, thanks for you comment and for stopping by to read my hub. The opossum is a fascinating creature considering the fact that it is the last of it kind in its original place of origin.


drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

Opossums are fascinating animals. Thanks for your diligent research, melpor, and reminding me of that fact.


melpor profile image

melpor 5 years ago from New Jersey, USA Author

Vishaaa, thanks for your comment and for stopping by to read my hub. You pronounce it as "O" "pos" "sum".


Vishaaa profile image

Vishaaa 5 years ago from Somewhere on this earth..

They looks like rats. But scary. I just can't pronounce their name "opossums" :(

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