Opossums get a bad rap as garage invaders and creepy little animals that wander up onto our porches at night. They’re not the cutest, in fact, some go as far as calling them ugly. The reality is, opossums are fascinating creatures, incredibly useful, and typically misunderstood. Here are a few interesting facts about opossums (and yes, the “o” is silent) that will make you think before you shoo them out of your yard!
1. Opossums Kill Ticks by the Thousands
Opossums are voracious eaters that will try anything they find, something you know quite well if you’ve ever found one pawing through your garbage bins. Ticks, particularly the black-legged ticks like deer ticks that are responsible for the spread of Lyme disease, appear to be a top item on the opossum’s menu. Several years ago, biologists from the Cary Institute put opossums and other species, like chipmunks, squirrels, mice, and catbirds to the test, giving each animal 100 ticks to eat. Opossums ate far more ticks than any other animal, leading scientists to estimate that just one opossum eats, on average, 5,000 ticks each year. See some of our tick remedies here!
2. The Only Known North American Marsupial
Outside of Mexico, the Virginia opossum is the only known marsupial to make its home in North America – although there are several other species of opossum that can be found in other parts of the world. Marsupials are a fairly small class of animals that raise their young in a pouch, and include kangaroos, wombats, koalas, and opossum.
3. Opossums Are Incredibly Agile
If you’ve ever watched an opossum at play, it might have struck you as a somewhat clumsy little critter. However, opossums are world class tree climbers, with sharp claws, opposable thumbs on their hind feet and a prehensile tail that helps them scale trunks and hang onto branches. In fact, opossums love trees so much that they often nest in tree hollows.
4. The Indestructible Opossum?
Opossums aren’t indestructible, but they do have some pretty hefty natural immunities. These animals are largely immune to rabies, although it can occur rarely. They’re also largely immune to venom from snakes like cottonmouths and rattlesnakes.
5. Opossums Make Strange Sounds
You’ve probably never heard an opossum make a noise before because they are usually fairly quiet. However, they do have a few distinctive calls. Young opossums will make sneezing sounds or a soft “choo choo” to call out to their mother, who will respond with clicking noises. Males make those same clicking sounds during mating season. And when an opossum is threatened, it may hiss or growl.
6. “Playing ‘Possum” Isn’t Make Believe
Opossums have several defense mechanisms, including growling, belching, and urinating when threatened. However, their most famous defense mechanism is “playing ‘possum,” similar to playing dead. However, the mechanism isn’t the opossum pretending. It’s actually an involuntary reaction — a lot like fainting — that causes the opossum to seize up. When in this state, opossums sometimes also bare their teeth, foam at the mouth, and produce foul smelling fluids from anal glands to mimic sickness. Once catatonic, an opossum can remain like that for up to four hours — an effective deterrent against predators that typically avoid carrion.
7. Baby Opossums Are Cute — And a Little Weird!
Baby opossums are called joeys, just like baby kangaroos, and when they are born, they are only about the size of a honeybee. The infant opossums crawl to their mother’s pouch, where they will stay for 2—3 three months. Baby opossums stay with mom for about 100 days and, as they age, they’ll start venturing out of the pouch more and more. But instead of wandering around on their own, they’ll often hitch a ride, clinging to their mother’s back as she scavenges (see video below).
Opossums are so often misunderstood but they are great creatures to have around. They’re docile, unlikely to threaten pets or carry disease, and they help keep pest populations under control. Instead of shooing them away, let them hang around and they’ll clean up ticks, venomous snakes, discarded birdseed, and more. Among all the wildlife visitor to your back yard, opossums are one of the best to have around.
Take a look at this fascinating video of a mother opossum carting her babies on her back!