A Virginia opossum carrying her young on her back.

By Ali Dunstan

One of the most interesting, abundant and misunderstood creatures in our area is the opossum. The Virginia opossum, a native species, is extra special because they are North America’s only marsupial. Marsupials are mammals that carry their young in a pouch, such as the kangaroo and the koala. Despite their prehensile tail and pointed nose, they are not in the rodent family, a common misconception.

Opossums are nocturnal creatures and are the size of a house cat when fully grown. They are also nurturing mothers. Opossums can frequently be seen carrying their young on their back once they have emerged from the pouch. Opossums are docile, nonaggressive animals.

One of the most common questions that I receive about these creatures is if they are a threat to children or pets. The simple answer is: no. While the adage remains true, that we should never approach, feed or harass wildlife, opossums are gentle creatures that have a flight and flee response to danger.

They have several defense mechanisms when scared, including baring teeth and involuntarily playing ‘possum.’ They are transient animals and opportunistic eaters that will not stay in the area for long. This is especially true if you have dogs, which are terrifying to these gentle animals.

Opossums are very important to our ecosystem. Their omnivore diet consists of small animals, fruits, plants and carrion. This helps to reduce insect and rodent populations and the spread of diseases by cleaning up roadkill. Their attraction to carrion is one reason we see many fall victim to being hit by cars.

Most do not realize that opossum babies can survive almost 24 hours in their deceased mama’s pouch. It is common amongst rescuers and wildlife aficionados to check pouches to rescue any potential surviving orphans. Their abnormally low body temperature also makes their risk of carrying rabies extremely rare.

Fun fact: the opossum is immune to most snake venoms and could potentially be the key to future lifesaving antivenom treatments.

Some tips: secure garbage cans and be sure to keep pet food indoors. Remember, these animals share our space and provide beneficial services. The next time you happen upon one of these amazing animals, take a moment to appreciate all that is awesome about the opossum.

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