All About the Opossum


Just the other day while I was out and about I had a possum waddle down the hill into a field. It sat down and started looking around before it even noticed me. They are quite the unique looking creature with their beady eyes and hairless tail. Many times they are referred to as nuisance animals and are low on the totem pole down there with skunks.

Possums are fairly common all across West Virginia and if you’ve lived here very long I’m sure you’ve had an encounter with one. The Virginia possum is the most common species found around here. I remember walking our dog Obie a few years ago when he happened to see one in the road. In an instant Obie was running full bore right at the possum. When he got to it they both puffed up and started jawing at each other. They had a short stand off before I arrived and picked Obie up. They were nose to nose and even though teeth were chomping neither one got bit.

That’s what a possum encounters on a daily basis as many times they come in close proximity to humans looking for food. Possums are omnivores meaning they’ll eat both meat and plant material. Insects, snails, rodents, berries, fruits, grasses, carrion are all on a possum’s diet. They’re considered a nuisance animal because they like to raid your garbage as well.

Possums are one of the shortest lived mammals for its size and only live 2 to 4 years. Humans and their cars, dogs, cats, hawks, owls, and other large mammals are the cause for the short life span. Since they’re attracted to carrion and road kill several end up as the same since they’re hanging out by the roadways.

Despite their reputation possums have some unique characteristics. Did you know that possums were the only marsupials in North America? The females have a pouch much like a kangaroo. Female possums carry and nurse their young for 2 to 3 months in the pouch. Then the little guys hitch a ride on their mothers back for another 1 to 2 months whenever they’re in search of food and away from the den.

Possums are mainly nocturnal animals and spend a good bit of time in the trees. They’re great climbers as they use their tails to help grip limbs and keep their balance. They don’t however use their tails to hang upside down much too popular belief. Their back feet are more like hands and have an opposable thumb much like monkeys which also help with tree climbing.

They’re also different in that they have a mouthful of teeth. Actually possums have around 50 teeth and the most of any North American animal. One of their defense mechanisms is to open their mouth and show their teeth while letting out hissing/growling noise much like the one did to my dog Obie.

Another defense a possum uses is to play dead. While playing dead they’ll emit a foul odor from their anal gland to make their attacker think they’ve been dead and rotting for awhile. They may lay there motionless for 45 minutes or even hours depending on the situation.

Possums have been around for a long time and fossil records show they were roaming the earth 70 million years ago. This makes them one of the oldest surviving mammals still living today. It’s very rare for possums to carry rabies. Research has shown that they’re basically immune to rattlesnake venom, rabies, and distemper.

In West Virginia there is a continuous open season on possums although I don’t know too many folks that eat them. Actually I know of none. Although at one time back in the day it was a favored game animal in the southern US as there are several recipes in the older books with possum on the menu.

So the next time you’re out and come across a waddling possum look at it as a unique native animal instead of a nuisance. That’s easy to say when they’re not getting in your trash and scattering it everywhere. But then again, they’ve been here for a lot longer than we have.