OpossumsBy Elizabeth Schleichert
All aboard! Mama ‘Possom is off to hunt up a meal, with her babies piled on her back. As you can see, baby opossums grow up with a heap of littermates—and a mama for a minivan! But there are more cool things about being an opossum. You’ll meet a young one who’ll tell you all about it below.
Hi, I’m Perry ‘Possom! That’s me in the treetops in the photo at top right. I’m called a Virginia opossum. And guess what? Opossums are the only North American mammals with pouches. (Only the females have them.) A pouch is the perfect place to get a head start in life, as you’ll see.
Take me, for instance. When I was born, I was teeny—the size of a bee. I used my tiny front claws to crawl from under Mom’s tail into her pouch. There I found a nipple and settled in to nurse. My littermates did the same thing. In the top photo, we were a week old. We spent most of the first three months of our lives there in Mom’s pouch.
AMAZING HANGERS ON!
As we grew, the pouch stretched out. Even so, some of us got pushed out accidentally from time to time (above). No problem, though. We just crawled back in, unharmed.
TALENTED TAILS AND THUMBS
Whee! Now that I’m two months old, I often spend time playing near Mom. My tail is prehensile (pree-HEN-sull). That means it can wrap around branches. It lets me get a grip and keep my balance so I can move with ease up in the trees. We opossums are the only North American mammals with tails like this!
Check out the special toe we have on each of our hind feet (small photo above right). It’s called a hallux. It works the same way your thumb does. Like our tails, it helps us grasp branches as we climb.
You’d never call us picky eaters! For example, look at Mom above left. She’s busily slurping up a tasty bird’s egg. She eats whatever her nose leads her to. (I know because I ride on her back each night as she snuffles and shuffles about, looking for a meal.)
What are her favorites? You name it: insects, earthworms, and slugs, as well as snakes, lizards, mice, and small birds. Human garbage and already-dead animals rate high on Mom’s menu, too!
If something threatens Mom, she will usually scurry to safety. (We opossums are shy, gentle creatures, after all.) But sometimes, when caught by surprise, she bares her teeth and hisses loudly, trying to scare away danger! (middle photo)
In the photo above right, Mom is pulling off an opossum’s slickest trick. It’s called “playing ‘possum.” When an owl, dog, or other predator refuses to back off, an opossum collapses to the ground. It lies stiffly on its side with its mouth open, not moving a muscle—as if it were dead. It may release a stinky green fluid from its rear end that makes it smell dead, too. A predator could poke, prod, or even bite the opossum, and the victim hardly ever reacts.
And since most predators don’t go for prey that is already dead, a would-be attacker usually loses interest in the opossum and wanders off in search of “fresher” meat.
After a while—anywhere from a minute to six hours—the “dead” opossum gets up and walks away, safe from harm! Ha-ha, April fool!
“Opossum” originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Ranger Rick magazine.
(Click on each image above for a closer view of the story.)