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Virginia Opossum

Didelphis virginiana

Opossums den in hollow logs, tree cavities, rock piles, old nests and burrows, and under decks and buildings. (stevehdc, Flickr)
Opossums den in hollow logs, tree cavities, rock piles, old nests and burrows, and under decks and buildings. (stevehdc, Flickr)

The Virginia opossum is a gray, heavyset mammal found throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Appearance:

The opossum has a heavyset body covered with grayish fur. It has a white face and thin, black ears. Its long head has a pointed snout, long whiskers and 50 sharp teeth. It has a long, tapered, scaly tail. Each foot has five toes; one toe is opposable. Opossums grow to about 25 to 40 inches in length and weigh 4 to 14 pounds; males are usually larger than females.

Habitat:

The opossum prefers wet areas such as swamps, but also found in forests, farmland and developed areas such as cities and suburbs. It spends much of its time in trees and will live in dens in hollow logs, tree cavities, rock piles, old nests and burrows, and under decks and buildings. It does not hibernate in winter. Females may live in groups but males are solitary. Opossums are nocturnal.

Range:

Found throughout the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed. Opossums have a minimum home range of 11 miles.

Feeding:

Opossums consume a wide variety of plants and animals. They eat mostly insects and dead animals, but will also eat just about anything else, including fruits, seeds, snakes, mice, frogs and garbage.

Predators:

Predators include owls, hawks, red foxes, cats, dogs and humans. Opossums protect themselves from predators by “playing dead,” since most predators will not eat an animal that is already dead. This is actually an involuntary reaction due to shock: the opossum falls onto the ground and lies motionless on its side with its eyes and mouth open, and it awakens when the danger passes. Opossums may also try to bluff predators into thinking they are aggressive by hissing and baring their teeth when feeling threatened. Most opossums are killed by cars because they have poor hearing and eyesight.

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

Mating occurs between January and July. After 12 to 13 days, the female gives birth to a litter of 7 to 9 young that are about the size of a dime. The tiny young crawl into their mother’s belly pouch and attach to a nipple. They remain in the pouch for about two months to develop. After they leave her pouch, the female carries her young on her back when she travels. Young remain with the female until they are about 4 months old, reaching sexual maturity at 6 to 12 months old. Opossums rarely live longer than 18 months.

Other Facts:

  • The only marsupial native to North America
  • Name comes from the Algonquian word apassum, meaning “white beast”
  • The oldest opossum ever collected in the wild was 3 years old
  • An excellent climber that uses its toes and tail to grasp branches
  • Very susceptible to frostbite. It is not unusual to see an opossum that is missing an ear, toes or the tip of its tail.

Sources and Additional Information:

Places:




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