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Opossums: The Worst Winter Survivalists

Did you know opossums are tropical animals? How the heck did these heat-loving marsupials end up hanging out in Illinois during our frigid winters? And how do they survive?


An opossum standing in leaves dusted with snow.
An opossum. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Turns out there’s no trick hidden in their pouch. They are just stubborn troopers. 


Where are your gloves?!


Virginia opossums, the species you find in Illinois, have a sparse coat of fur and nearly naked tails, ears and paws. Imagine going outside to play in the snow with your fall jacket and no hat or gloves. You would be cold! So are opossums. 


Without protection, most opossums get frostbite on their exposed pink skin. Frostbite is basically when skin freezes. It can cause permanent damage. It’s not unusual to see opossums lose the very tip of their tails. Look for the “tell-tail” sign of black at the end.


That is even how some scientists can tell the age of an opossum. Does it have a long, complete tail? Then the opossum is less than a year old and probably hasn’t lived through a full winter. 


Raccoons, squirrels and most other mammals that live in Will County grow full coats of fur, bulking up on lots of extra fat to keep warm. But not the opossum.


With all this going against them, how do opossums survive? Unlike other opossum species, Virginia opossums have the tiniest amount of extra fat stored under their skin and in their tails. And it’s just enough to squeak by — for a couple of years at least. 


Winter naps and meals


The cold causes problems for opossums eating, nesting and sleeping. They don’t hunker down and hibernate. They must stay active to find food, which means they need to leave their dens. Do they cuddle together to warm up? Nope. Opossums remain solitary and don’t share a den even in winter. 


An opossum on a fallen tree limb.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

Opossums are normally nocturnal, meaning that they are awake at night. Keep an eye out for them during the day in winter, though. Daytime temperatures are just a little warmer, so they will come out to hunt down food. 


They like grass, nuts, fruit, mice, birds, insects, worms, snakes and even baby chickens. They will scavenge roadkill or look in your garbage can on winter days. You might even see them at a bird feeder or bowl of dog food kept outdoors! Yum yum.


Opossums travel a couple miles every day because they won’t store food at home. During the summer months, these critters move between homes in places like hollow longs, trees, burrows and wood piles. Does your family have more than one home? Bet you don’t have 18! That’s how many homes an opossum can have in the warmer months. 


Double-digit homes need a lot of upkeep and require a lot of travel in the cold weather, so they only rotate through two or three homes during winter. Using their mouths, hands and tails, they grab leaves and moss to help insulate their home a little. They might even move into a shed, crawl space or attic. It’s chilly outside! 


An immigrant story


So how did this tropical animal end up in northern climates with harsh winters? We can’t ask an opossum to share her family history. (But wouldn’t a talking opossum be cool?) Here is what we know. They are the only marsupial north of Mexico. At some time in their history, they gradually moved north. 


 

Words to know

Climate: The weather conditions in an area over a long period.

Forage: To search for food.

Insulate: To protect something by surrounding it with materials to prevent the loss of heat.

Solitary: Done or existing alone.

 

We know they were in Virginia by the 1600s because they made the history books. Captain John Smith wrote, “An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is the bigness of a Cat.” By 1900, their known stomping grounds included all of the southeastern United States. Then they rapidly started expanding their range northward. Now they are common in Illinois and even farther north. You can even find them in Canada!


Why? Climate change probably has something to do with it. They also have an open pantry to choose from with all the food we humans leave out: corn in farmer’s fields; yummy plants, earthworms, and insects in yards; roadkill on the side of highways; and don’t forget those delicious bites in garbage bins! They are true generalists. Opossums are not picky about what they eat or where they live, which helped their spread. 


With such a rough time in the winter, opossums don’t live very long. Here in Illinois, celebrating a third birthday is almost unheard of. They might not survive many years, but they do have lots of babies to continue the family line. Virginia opossums that live farther south can survive up to seven years because they don’t have to deal with the cold.


Cool fast facts


An opossum with her littler of babies on her back.
An opossum carrying her babies on her back. (Photo via Shutterstock)

  • Worldwide, there are more than 60 species of opossums found in Central and South America, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and Australia.

  • Newborn babies are the size of a bumblebee! They crawl into their mother’s pouch to keep developing. 

  • When they are old enough, youngsters like to climb on top of their mom’s back to hitch a ride while foraging for food. 

  • When scared or threatened, an opossum will play dead by rolling over on its side, gazing off into the distance, staying statue still and giving off a bad smell. They hope it will confuse a predator into leaving them alone. This is so well known that we call it “playing possum.” Other animals that play possum are ladybugs, rabbits, hognose snakes, lemon sharks and ducks.

  • Their tails help them climb, almost like a fifth limb. They signal danger, help mark their territory and can move stuff around. They cannot hang from their tail for a long time, however. 


Look for these winter survivors while exploring outside. Are they in a tree or playing possum or searching for food? Can you tell their age? Take a minute to appreciate this animal that shouldn’t have ever made it this far north!

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