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The Opposum: Mother Nature's Janitor

Updated on September 18, 2012
an opposum
an opposum
a baby opposum on mother's back.
a baby opposum on mother's back.

There are a few animals living in North America that are as unappreciated as this marsupial.

Imagine that you're driving home from work late one evening and you discover an opposum eating the remains of another animal on the road. What would you do?

If your total answer is "Let it be," then good for you! Carrion is the opposums top diet, and this animal is simply doing what comes naturally.

For millions and millions of centuries, fueled myths and folklore have been as undereserved prejudice against the opposum, but these following facts that I am about to mention may seem surprising to you as they were to me.

Fossil remains indicate that opposums have existed unchanged for 70s million years. The staying power of this primitive animal is largely due to its remarkable fecundity.

Female opposums mate twice a year, birthing (just 13 days after breeding) sometimes as may as 20 bean-size babies. These joeys (named like their kangaroo cousins) follow the mother's belly hair into a fur-lined pouch called the marsupian; where there are 13 teats. Those that successfully make the journey to the pouch remain there attached to a nipple for about two months. (Male opposums do not stay to help raise the family.)

When the joeys are the size of a mouse they emerge to ride on the mother's back (not her tail), where they cling to her hair for several weeks. Should a joey become seperated from the mother, it makes a sneezing sound. She responds with a clicking noise, and they reunite together once more.

When a few months have passed, after the joeys have gained knowledge on the basic surviving skills, they start their own life on their own.

This type of animal seldom stays in one place for more than a few days. It's delicate paws are not suitable for digging, so it lives on dens and burrows that have been used and left by other animals, even at times takig over unoccupied doghouses. Although opposums don't hibernate and are mostly nocturnal, during snowy weather they may prefer to stay in a hole for days until hunger drives them out to search for a meal during warm daylight hours.

Opposums cause no harm. They will not dig up your garden or chew on wood or wires. They are also not aggressive; they do not harm humans or other anmals (however,like any other wildlife animal, they may bite if touched).

In controlled environments, like zoos and laboratories, an opposum can live up to 10 years. In the wild, it's lifespan is 1 year, on average, and it is mostly a life on the run. Predators abund, with man at the top of the list. Hunters kill opposums for food, for their fur ( of negligable market value), for sport, and out of fear and ignoranc-with little resistance.

This animal is essentially defenseless. A prehensile tail and rear feet with opposable halluces (thumbs) help the opposum climb away from danger, and its 50 razor-sharp teeth suggest ferocity. When frightnened, an opposum will hiss, growl, urinte, and/ or defecate.

If it fees hopelessly cornered, its survival tactic is to lapse into a coma-like state that can last up to several hours. Although the animal may appear and smell dead studies inidicate that its brain is alert while in this state. In a last-ditch effort to discourage a predator, the opposum might secrete from its anal glands a substance that smells like a rotten carcass.

This omnivore catches and eats mice and rats. It devours insects, especially cockaroaches; snails; slugs; and snakes. (A natural resistance to some snake venoms allows the opposum to consume rattlesnakes, copperheads, and other poisonous reptiles safely.)

Opposums also eat grasses, overripe fruit and berries, bird egs, and human garbage and pet foods. (They don't ind sharing a bowl with Kitty.) However, their favorite meal is carrion, and this bold appetite helps to keep our environment clean. Ironically, when the feast is roadkill on the pavement, the opposum often meets its own demise.

All of this is why, if you see an opposum, you should let it be. Just consider yourself lucky and thank nature's little janitor for doing its job.

Opposum Culture

In the kitchen:

  • In the 19th century, opposum was a diet staple for many poor families in the southeastern United States, which may explain many recipes' southern origins. Recipes for cooking opposum are abundant in wild game cookbooks and on websites.
  • In the mid-1800s, women aplied opposum fat to chapped skin.
  • At dinner in Georgia at which barbecued opposum was served, William Howard Taft declared that the southern specialty was delicious. Soon after, postcards and buttons championed Taft as "Billiy Possum" during his presidential campaign in 1908. After his election to succeed President Teddy Roosevelt, a stuffed toy possum was created with the slogan "Goodbye, Teddy Bear. Hello Billy Possum."

In Music:

  • "Possum Rag" by Geraldine Dobyns was a hit in 1907.
  • Early 20th-century fiddle tunes such as "Possum Up a Gum Tree" and "Rattler Treed a Possum" are still popular.
  • In 2001, John Craton composed "The Possum," a classical piece for piano, as part of his colection of animal compositions.
  • In 2008, the Berlin Philharmonic commissioned Nathan Currier's "Possum Wakes From Playing Dead" for cello and harp.
  • In 2011, Gary Bachlund composed "Possum Lullaby" for tuba and piano.

In Art:

  • Early itinerant artists often depicted joeys hanging by their tails from the mother's tail or with an elongated ratlike body, neither of which is accurate.
  • Walt Kely (1913-1973) popularized the wise, kind, and philosophical Pogo possum character in cartoons from 1941 to 1973.

Billy Possum
Billy Possum

Possum Rag by Geraldine Dobyns

Possum Up a Gum Tree


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    • innerspin profile image

      innerspin 5 years ago from uk

      I enjoyed reading about the opossums, wish we had them here in the uk. 13 teats is a little weird. Can't understand why anyone would want to hunt them, unless they needed food. Interesting hub.