Five Fun Facts About Our Only Marsupial, The Opossum

Opossums are one of those animals that are so ugly they’re cute, which makes easy to identify. Once you've seen one, there's no mistaking an opossum for anything else.

Appearances aside, opossums are interesting in many ways. For example, they have 50 teeth, which is more than any other mammal in North America. They also have tails that are often compared to those of rats. Like rats, their tails are prehensile, which means they are capable of grasping objects, and they can be used to help them balance and climb.


That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what sets opossums apart. Read on to learn more fun facts about these animals.


They have a superpower


Opossums aren't superheroes like Batman and Spider-Man, but they do have something of a superpower that helps them survive. They are immune to the venom of honeybees, scorpions, rattlesnakes and other venomous animals. They also are not affected by toxins such as botulism. In addition, opossums rarely contract rabies because their normal body temperature is too low for the virus to survive. Plus they only rarely contract Lyme disease from tick bites.


They are immune to the effects of toxins and venoms because of a neutralizing factor in their blood. This may be helpful to humans down the road because scientists are studying it for use in creating anti-venoms.


They really do play dead


Sometimes, information about animals can get a little twisted, but opossums acting dead is not an example of this. Opossums really do play dead, but not on purpose. Instead, it's a physiological response to danger that they have no control over, like fainting is for humans.

 

Words to know

Carrion: The decaying flesh of dead animals.

Catatonic: Immobile or unresponsive.

Physiological: How a person’s or animal’s body functions.

Prehensile: Capable of grasping. Typically used to describe an animal’s tail.

 

The act can be pretty convincing, too. The opossums will pull back their lips to bare their teeth, foam at the mouth and even emit putrid-smelling secretions from their anal glands. So convincing is their playing dead that some opossums have been killed or injured by well-intentioned people who thought the animal really was dead.


If you come across an opossum that appears to be dead, the best thing to do is leave it be. They can remain in this catatonic state for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Once they regain consciousness, they will go on their way.


Baby opossums are like preemies

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Like all baby marsupials, baby opossums are called joeys. Marsupials are known for their pouches, and the pouches are a key part of the joeys' development. Female opossums are only pregnant for 13 days before giving birth to babies that are as small as honeybees. Immediately after birth, the joeys will crawl into their mother's pouch, where they continue to develop. Because of their small size, not all joeys will survive. While litters can be as large as 20, the average surviving litter size is about eight.


Joeys will stay in their mother's fur-lined pouch for about two months. After that period, they stick close to their moms for awhile. Between the ages of two months and four months, the joeys will not be in the pouch full time, but they are still dependent on their mothers for food and shelter. It's during this time when you may see the young opossums riding around on their mother's back. After about 100 days, the joeys are able to survive on their own.


They are North America's only marsupial


When you think of marsupials, some of Australia’s well-known animals probably come to mind, and rightly so. Of the more than 330 marsupials in the world, two-thirds live in Australia. Most of the remaining one-third live in South America. Just one, the Virginia opossum, lives in North America, including the United States.


Australia's pouched animals consist of one of the most famous marsupials of all, the kangaroo, plus other well-known marsupials like koalas, Tasmanian devils, wallabies and wombats. They also have many species of opossums Down Under, but these are different animals entirely than our North American opossums.


They're tick-eating machines


Opossums are opportunistic eaters, which means they eat whatever is readily available to them. They also will rummage through our trash or get into containers where food is stored for a quick and easy meal. In areas where ticks are prevalent, opossums can eat huge numbers of ticks. A single opossum can devour as many as 5,000 ticks per season!


Opossums eat so many ticks because they are careful groomers, and they eat most all the ticks they pick off their bodies. In fact, more than 95% of the ticks that try to feed on opossums are instead eaten by the opossums. Ticks aren't the only undesirable thing they keep in check. Opossums also eat cockroaches and small rodents like rats and mice. Plus they sometimes eat carrion, or dead animals.

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