Journal Archive
« It's Official: The Journey Begins – Again! | Main | Nature: Giver and Taker »

Canned 'Possum

When I arrived at work yesterday morning, I saw one of the trash barrels in front of the nature center laying on its side. When I was standing it upright again, I noticed a very large opossum at the bottom staring back up at me. With its scratched and bloody snout, beady eyes, frost-bitten ear and tail tips, and copious drooling from a mouth agape and packed with a ridiculous amount of sharp teeth, this poor creature was a victim of its own omnivorous eating habits (that include dumpster-diving from time to time).

Despite its notoriously unattractive visage (except to other opossum, I expect), it made me smile and my heart went out to it. After all, I have at times in my life innocently miscalculated my abilities and ended up looking foolish and feeling exceedingly vulnerable. This opossum was really at my mercy, since there was no way it was climbing out of that barrel. It would have died of dehydration long before starvation could claim it's life.

I moved the barrel away from pedestrian activity and carefully turned the barrel on its side, expecting the critter to sheepishly walk away. Instead, he simply gave me a pitiful look, curled up in the back (bottom) of the barrel and resumed drooling at me, refusing to leave. I left it some sunflower seeds in case it was hungry from spending probably 3 days in the can. Possibly it was dislodged from a tree cavity or flooded out of an underground den by the severe Nor'easter that hit the region.

The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is North America's only marsupial. With more teeth than any other land mammal in North America (50), it tries to warn off predators by hissing and opening its mouth VERY wide to display such formidable choppers. It feeds primarily on dead animals like road kill – which is one reason so many become flattened themselves.

Female opossum bear up to 14 young, called "kits". This sounds like a huge effort, but the babies are no bigger than a honeybee. The blind and totally helpless babies must immediately crawl their way up and into the mother's marsupial pouch for their first meal of milk. If they can't find the pouch, or are too weak to make the journey, they perish. I think that alone is worthy of our respect for these animals. I mean, imagine if human babies had to go crawl around for food immediately after birth? 

This opossum was not "playing possum" with me, as it was still responsive to me and I was (relatively) non-threatening. The phrase relates to the behavior of unconsciousness (or perhaps a temporary state of paralysis or trance) and is actually not a strategic choice but rather a physiological response to severe threat. It's an extreme fear response where the animal appears dead and smells foul (and theoretically unappetizing for a would-be predator). It secrets nasty musk from "special" glands near the anus and will not respond while in this trance even when poked and prodded or carried away by an animal. It can be minutes or hours before they come out of the trance state and, with any luck, be on their merry way again. My particular opossum was gone the next morning, having munched on some of the sunflower seeds before leaving the trash barrel.

One more interesting note concerns the prehensile or gripping tail, which is mostly hairless. Contrary to popular notion, Opossum do not really hang by their tails or swing from branch to branch. They instead use their tail for balance, gripping tree limbs as they move about the treetops, and sometimes to "grab" a bit of dry leaves for use in insulating their living quarters. Opossum don't excavate new burrows or make cozy tree cavity homes. While they'll use such existing places if they encounter them, just about any place will do so long as it is dark and secure (like inside your garage or under your porch).

These animals are very successful despite their apparent shortcomings. Fossil records show ancestors to the Virginia Opossum dating back a hundred million years or so. I imagine some were probably scurrying beneath the feet of the great dinosaurs (they were probably road kill back then, too).

Well, there is so much more to say about the opossum, so I offer you this link which has very cute photos throughout (don't forget to scroll all the way down to see the young kits) and interesting, readable research on this fascinating animal.

Reader Comments (1)

Hi Drew, You could be right about the opossum getting it's bloody nose from a scuffle with another opossum or a Raccoon. I've no way of knowing for sure, but it is STILL a wild world out there, even in dense, urbanized areas. – Michael

April 7, 2010 | Registered CommenterMichael Gambino

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>