Opossums are colloquially known as "possums," especially in North America. The Virginia opossum -- which can be found throughout the continent -- is the only marsupial that lives naturally in North America. These scavengers aren't impressive runners, and they have a reputation for ending up as roadkill. But they have survived for millions of years, thanks both to their frequent mating and to their willingness to eat practically anything they come across in their travels.
Life in the Pouch
Possums are tiny creatures when they're born -- only about the size of a bee or a jelly bean. As soon as they're born, they crawl into their mother's pouch, where they'll stay exclusively for three months or longer. The pouch is warm and safe, and seals so tightly that the mother can go for a swim while the pups stay dry inside. They simply stay in the pouch, suckling and growing, until they are old enough to emerge. Until they leave the den between the age of 3 and 4 months, they continue hitching a ride with their mother, albeit by latching onto her fur.
A possum isn't a particularly picky creature. These scavengers will eat virtually anything, which is credited with keeping the species alive since dinosaurs roamed the Earth. While possums removed from civilization feast on nuts, fruits, insects, amphibians, eggs and dead animals, they are also known for raiding human garbage cans for anything that may have been tossed out by more discriminating consumers. Possums won't hesitate to chow down on any dead animal, including road kill -- which is partially why they have a reputation for being hit by cars.
Making a Home
While you probably only move once every few years at the most, possums don't like to stay in one place very long. They live in dens that they load up with grass and other insulation, but they don't stay in the same den for more than a few days -- they move frequently as a way of hiding from predators. Since they move so frequently, they don't always take the time to dig out a den themselves -- they may improvise by holing up in hollow trees, wood piles, abandoned burrows and domestic spaces, like the crawlspace under a porch.
Possums spend much of their time foraging for food and other den supplies. When they aren't on the move, they like to sleep and groom themselves. Self-defense is not a possum's strong suit, though, nor is running -- this is why they sometimes feign death, or "play possum," when confronted with a predator. The animal actually experiences a seizure that causes the body to closely imitate death, compelling predators to leave it alone -- not all creatures are as willing to eat from a dead body as a possum is.
Possums are flexible when it comes to breeding. Unlike other animals that have mating seasons, the possum has been known to breed during any month of the year. After she's impregnated, the mother generally has less than two weeks before she gives birth to her litter. Three to four months later, when the litter leaves the nest, she doesn't waste any time before getting pregnant and propagating the species further -- a female may give birth to up to three litters in a single year.
opossum peeking-rb image by Tijara Images from Fotolia.com
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.