You’re meandering through the woods when you encounter a cat-sized creature making its way along the floor. But as it passes you by, you’re confused by its thick tail, coarse fur, weirdly long fingers, and pointed snout.
What is it, we hear you ask? The elusive Virginia opossum.
The Virginia opossum is a solitary creature that is typically around the size of a domesticated cat. They are pretty slow and are also nocturnal creatures meaning they only come out to play at night and sleep throughout the day.
These unsung heroes patrol the streets. But they don’t do it for fame or glory. Instead, they are simply driven by their instincts and intense hunger.
If you want to know more, this article contains some fun facts about the Virginia opossum!
1. They Exhibit Lots Of Interesting Behaviors
The Virginia opossum exhibits lots of interesting and distinctive behavior. For example, they only emerge at night to feed with the majority of their active hours being spent searching for suitable amounts of food.
Another thing to look out for is Opossum sounds. This includes a click that is generally used to attract a mate and then a loud hiss when they feel threatened. Young Virginia opossums will sneeze loudly to get attention from their mother.
Notably, the Virginia opossum is also a very agile creature, spending much of its time surviving in the trees. Their opposable toes help them to firmly grip onto branches while a prehensile tail enables them to hang from branches to move around.
A Virginia opossum will usually sleep during the day in a den carved into a hollow tree or in an abandoned rodent burrow located in the woods.
2. They Are Smart Critters
If you were to scan the brain of a Virginia opossum and didn’t know any better, you would assume they were an extremely unintelligent animal.
Not only do they lack the corpus callosum, a structure that connects the two halves of the brain, but their brains are only one-sixth the size of a raccoon’s brain and around one-fifth the size of a cat’s!
Due to its primitive and highly unique brain structure, the Virginia opossum also possesses various traits that make it appear to be unintelligent. These include moving quite slowly and also having much slower reactions to their environment.
However, the Virginia opossum is a pretty smart creature and tends to excel in a variety of intelligence tests – especially when scavenging for food. To start, opossums were shown to have a remarkable ability to find food and then remember exactly where it is. They outscored the likes of dogs, cats, rabbits, and rats but didn’t quite manage to beat humans.
They are also known for their ability to find their way through a maze far more efficiently than cats and rats.
3. The Only Known North American Marsupial
Outside of Mexico, the Virginia opossum is the only known marsupial to find its home in North America. Despite this, there are other species of opossum dotted in other countries all around the world.
In North America, this opossum is often seen near local towns in urban environments. They will usually be found rummaging through multiple garbage cans digging for rotten fruit and pet food. They may sometimes be mistaken for rats but have no relation whatsoever to placental mammals or rodents.
More importantly, however, is their appearance. A typical Virginia opossum can be characterized by 50 sharp teeth and two color phases: blackish and grayish, but can also be brown or red. Their body is covered with white-tipped long guard hairs.
4. Female Virginia Opossums Are Walking Embryos
Baby Virginia opossums are born sightless and hairless and are usually around the size of a honeybee. They are essentially walking embryos. This is because, at birth, the young must use their strong yet small front legs to clamber into their mother’s pouch.
As a marsupial, it’s completely normal for a Virginia opossum female to raise its young in a pouch.
The mother will lick the pouch and its other fur to make sure that these young opossums get what they need in their start to life. Unfortunately, not all of the opossums in a litter will make it. This is because a female only has 13 nipples – some of which may not provide milk – and if a baby does not fasten to a nipple, it will not live.
Surviving Virginia opossums will remain attached for anywhere between 50 to 70 days and can then choose to stay in the pouch or opt to ride along on their mother’s back. After 120 days, they will take the steps toward an independent life. This is a transition that many young opossums do not survive.
5. Playing Dead Is A Real Thing!
The Virginia opossum has many natural predators including birds of prey like owls and hawks.
If they feel threatened or are injured, the Virginia opossum will react quite aggressively to defend themselves. They will demonstrate behavior such as baring their teeth, snapping their jaw, drooling, hissing, and forcing their fur to stand on end to appear more physically threatening.
If this attempt at aggression doesn’t work out well, the Virginia opossum is renowned for feigning death as a response to extreme fear. This is where the whole deceitful idea of “playing possum” comes from.
This position involves this specific type of opossum laying limp and motionless on its side with its mouth and eyes wide open, tongue hanging out, and its feet clenched. Feigning death may conclude when the threat withdraws itself and could end up lasting for over four hours!
6. They Are Opportunistic Omnivores
Despite having so many teeth, the Virginia opossum eats a relatively normal diet! Well, as “normal” as a scavenger's diet can truly be.
These creatures are omnivores with a highly diverse diet. This could range from small mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, insects, eggs, plants, seeds, fruit, or nuts. However, the exact foods they eat depend on the season and their habitat.
Simply put, they are highly opportunistic creatures and will gain a lot of their diet from scavenged food items. This is especially true if they live in an urban environment! Virginia opossums are constantly willing to scavenge both animal and plant materials to get the substance they need.
However, Virginia opossums are also largely attracted to carrion so they also consume roadkill when it is readily available. Their ability to eat both ticks and dead animals means that they play a very important role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.
7. Virginia Opossums Have Natural Immunity
Due to their appearance, it’s a pretty common misconception that opossums might be harbingers of serious diseases. In the case of rabies, opossums are very rarely carriers of this deadly virus due to their naturally low body temperature.
Compared to other types of wild animals, these opossums are less likely to have rabies than creatures like skunks, raccoons, and bats. Despite this, they can still pass diseases including Salmonella and leptospirosis to a human via excrement. However, this isn’t an extremely common occurrence.
Virginia opossums are also frequent spreaders of fleas to various domestic animals and are often bitten by ticks. Funnily enough, they tend to eat the ticks before they can infect them!
One of the most interesting facts is that the Virginia opossum also has an impressive natural immunity to snake venom, bee stings, and scorpions. Their total or partial immunity to snake venom made by cottonmouths, pit vipers, or rattlesnakes is unlike many other creatures.
8. The Virginia Opossum Inspires Myths
Unsurprisingly, an animal that can transform into a living corpse (playing dead) has become the subject of many strange discussions. Due to its peculiar appearance, the Virginia opossum is often mentioned in many myths.
As we’ve established, opossums exhibit some pretty unusual behavior. But spending long hours hanging by their tails or even sleeping as they do so is most definitely a myth! They aren’t bats and therefore don’t tend to show this type of behavior.
However, one of the weirdest myths overall is that male North American opossums will breed their female counterparts through her nose, and then she will sneeze the young into her pouch.
Maybe this is a little obvious to state, but this is most definitely a myth!
This likely came about due to the female’s habit of licking the pouch and any surrounding fur before or during the time that their young are born. But we can safely reassure you that though they are wild animals, this does not happen!
9. Large Habitat Range
Virginia opossums occupy multiple habitats ranging from wet meadows to deserts. However, these creatures have a preference for living among thickets and woodlands near a source of water.
You can expect to find Virginia opossums living anywhere from the lowlands to impressive elevations of around 3,000 meters. Provided the location is completely sheltered, of course.
In the US these creatures are native to the east of the rocky mountains. The introduced populations can easily be found on the west coast and these have since spread to British Columbia. The population now laps on that of the common opossum in certain parts of their range.
Notably, Virginia opossums can be found in the Americas. They tend to gravitate toward living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Canada, and the United States, to name a few.
Of the over 100 opossum species, the Virginia opossum is the only one that is native to North America.
10. Nesting And Reproduction
The Virginia opossum uses its tail to bring nesting materials like grass and leaves into its den. They do not hibernate throughout the year but will find a comfortable environment to nest in colder winter weather. These types of denning sites will vary and might also include buildings if there are any located nearby.
During the mating season, a male will attract a female by making distinctive clicking sounds with his mouth. The female opossum is spontaneous ovulation with a 28-day long estrous cycle. She is usually in estrus for only a short period of around 36 hours total. This is about the time when mating will occur.
The official breeding season for the Virginia opossum may begin as early as December and might continue through to October with the majority of infants being born between February and June.
A female opossum may also have anywhere from 1-3 litters each year!
And that concludes 10 fun facts about the peculiar creature that is the Virginia opossum! We hope that after reading this article, you’ve learned something new about these fascinating creatures and the way they live and survive in our modern world.