Take Me Outside: In N.H., opossums the only marsupials

  • A mother opossum carries her babies on her back as she makes her way back to her den after a night out. JOHN HARRELL / AP

  • A juvenile female Virginia opossum bares its teeth as a strategy of self-defense. Damian Dovarganes / AP

  • This Friday, July 22, 2011 photo shows a juvenile female Virginia opossum hiding under eucalyptus branches at the home of Leslie Bale, the president of the Opossum Society of the United States, in Bellflower, Calif. The possum and opossum are both marsupials but the Virginia opossum is native to North America and the possum is native to Australia. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes) Damian Dovarganes—AP

For the Monitor
Published: 5/8/2021 1:00:20 PM
Modified: 5/8/2021 1:00:03 PM

It’s Mother’s Day – a perfect day to get to know one of New Hampshire’s most unusual wild mothers. As North America’s only marsupial, the opossum mom carries her babies (called joeys) around in a pouch after they are born. With a mere 13-day gestation period, the joeys are only the size of a raisin when they emerge. Though blind and naked, they are able to crawl along the mother’s belly and into the pouch where they attach themselves to one of 13 teats. Those who find a nipple will remain attached to it for about 2.5 months, feeding and growing inside the warm, furry and protected pocket.

It’s curious to think about the advantages and disadvantages to having young develop inside the mothers’ body vs. inside a pouch. The pouch is a protective space, but babies are still somewhat vulnerable. However, a larger litter can be produced if they don’t have to develop inside the confines of a womb.

Development outside the womb has been successful enough that 250 species of marsupials exist throughout the world. But compared with more than 6,000 worldwide mammalian species, it’s clearly not the dominant strategy. Most marsupials (200 species) are found in Australia, New Guinea and neighboring islands which makes our Virginia Opossum that much more special.

Some might not consider these animals special. Measuring about 2 to 3 feet long, including a nearly hairless, rat-like tail and long pointy nose, many people find our native marsupial rather ugly. But looks aren’t everything. That tail is an amazing prehensile appendage which can be used like another hand to hold onto and swing from branches as they climb into and through trees. Their paws also are well adapted for climbing and clinging to things, with an opposable thumb for grasping, not unlike our own.

In addition to physical adaptations, the opossum has some unusual behaviors. Being a fairly slow moving animal, running away from a predator is not very successful. As an alternative, when threatened, it will hiss and show its 50 sharp teeth. If this is not effective at deterring an aggressor, it will fall into a temporary paralysis, triggered by shock. This involuntary response can lead to an excretion from scent glands that makes it smell dead. It may remain in this comatose state for several hours. Predators that prefer to kill their own food rather than consume something that is already dead will abandon the furry lump in search of a fresher meal.

It is often said that possums are good to have around because they eat ticks. They do, in fact eat ticks, especially if they are found on their own fur. They are meticulous groomers and any tick found on their body will be eaten. However, they do not pursue or prefer ticks to other food sources. As omnivores, they consume a wide variety of invertebrates – insects, slugs and snails but also mice, bird eggs, fruit, carrion, seeds and nuts. They can be considered some of nature’s garbage collectors, cleaning up the things that aren’t eaten by others.

The role of garbage collector can get them in trouble with people who don’t secure their own trash cans. Opossums may get into our garbage and make a mess. Yet if they do, it won’t likely happen on a regular basis. Opossums are nomadic and don’t stay in one place for very long. However, if the habitat is conducive, another roaming opossum may come by and replace the former tenant for a few days, before it’s time for that one to move on. So the best way to prevent trash invasion is to keep it in an enclosed building or well protected.

Probably the most challenging item to protect from the scrounging opossum is the compost bin. You can utilize an enclosed tub, put a lid on your bin or live with the fact that the possum’s digging through kitchen scraps is a good way to aerate the pile.

It is most likely that you will see the results of the marauding, rather than the actual culprit. Opossums are nocturnal so are most active when we are fast asleep. However catching a glimpse of a mother possum with her partially grown joeys riding on her back is a pretty fun sight to behold.

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