Opossums' bounteous pearly whites make the little creatures look fearsome, but they aren't necessarily useful in a fight. The slow-moving opossums use their teeth more as a visual threat than an actual tool for taking on their enemies -- demonstrating that it takes more than a mouth full of teeth to land at the top of the food chain.
Types of Teeth
Opossums have four different types of teeth in their mouths: 18 incisors in the front of the mouth, 16 molars toward the back, four canines -- or fangs -- and 12 premolars, between the canines and the molars. The canines and incisors are pointed teeth, while the premolars and molars are relatively flat-topped and blunt.
Scaring Off Foes
Equipped with 50 teeth, opossums actually have more teeth than any other North American mammal. When threatened by would-be predators, they bare their teeth, hissing and chomping to frighten off their enemies. They may even snap their jaws, making themselves seem like much bigger threats than they actually are, all in the hope of driving away danger without actually getting involved in a fight.
The reason that opossums use their large number of teeth as a visual threat is because they aren't actually practical for self-defense. While these teeth are razor-sharp and include four fangs, opossums are slow creatures who simply aren't equipped for battle. They may land a bite or two, but generally, opossums who are attacked by common predators like dogs, foxes, raccoons and owls don't survive. These animals have high mortality rates and rarely live to be even 2 years old in the wild.
Crushing and Climbing
Though opossums' teeth look more fearsome than they are, they have other practical uses. Generally, they are used for crushing and grinding food. Opossums have highly varied diets, supported by their mouthfuls of sharp teeth. Opossums also use their teeth, particularly their four fangs, as climbing tools. These animals are distinctly slow-moving on the ground, but are formidable climbers -- between their prehensile tails, dextrous paws and gripping fangs, they can easily navigate trees, fences and other elevated areas.
Because opossums have so many sharp teeth, they are able to feed opportunistically. This is one reason why the species has survived so long -- they were on this planet as early as dinosaurs were and have persevered because they are able to eat virtually anything they find. Because they aren't effective predators, they kill only small game like mice, birds, insects and reptiles. They'll happily make a meal out of garbage, though, and frequently dine on dead animals that they happen across.
Tom Ryan is a freelance writer, editor and English tutor. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English writing, and has also worked as an arts and entertainment reporter with "The Pitt News" and a public relations and advertising copywriter with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.