Opossum – Virginia Opossum – “Grinner” – “Trash Gator” – Marsupial

Identification

An opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is a whitish or grayish mammal about the size of a house cat. Underfur is dense with sparse guard hairs. Its face is long and pointed, its ears rounded and hairless. Maximum length is 40 inches (102 cm); the ratlike tail is slightly less than half the total length. The tail may be unusually short in northern opossums due to loss by frostbite. Opossums may weigh as much as 14 pounds (6.3 kg); males average 6 to 7 pounds (2.7 to 3.2 kg) and females average 4 pounds (6.3 kg). The skull is usually 3 to 4 inches (8 to 10 cm) long and contains 50 teeth — more than are found in any other North American mammal. Canine teeth (fangs) are prominent. Tracks of both front and hind feet look as if they were made by little hands with widely spread fingers. They may be distinguished from raccoon tracks, in which hind prints appear to be made by little feet. The hind foot of an opossum looks like a distorted hand.

Habitat

Habitats are diverse, ranging from arid to moist, wooded to open fields. Opossums prefer environments near streams or swamps. They take shelter in burrows of other animals, tree cavities, brush piles, and other cover. They sometimes den in attics and garages where they may make a messy nest.

Food Habits

Foods preferred by opossums are animal matter, mainly insects or carrion. Opossums also eat considerable amounts of vegetable matter, especially fruits and grains. Opossums living near people may visit compost piles, garbage cans, or food dishes intended for dogs, cats, and other pets.


General Biology, Reproduction, and Behavior

Opossums usually live alone, having a home range of 10 to 50 acres (4 to 20 ha). Young appear to roam randomly until they find a suitable home range. Usually they are active only at night. The mating season is January to July in warmer parts of the range but may start a month later and end a month earlier in northern areas. Opossums may raise 2, rarely 3, litters per year. The opossum is the only marsupial native to North America. Like other marsupials, the blind, helpless young develop in a pouch. They are born 13 days after mating. The young, only 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) long, find their way into the female’s pouch where they each attach to one of 13 teats. An average of 7 – 10 young are born, but they can have as many as 25. They remain in the pouch for 7 to 8 weeks. The young remain with the mother another 6 to 7 weeks until weaned.

Most young die during their first year. Those surviving until spring will breed in that first year. The maximum age in the wild is about 7 years.

Although opossums have a top running speed of only 7 miles per hour (11.3 km/hr), they are well equipped to escape enemies. They readily enter burrows and climb trees. When threatened, an opossum may bare its teeth, growl, hiss, bite, screech, and exude a smelly, greenish fluid from its anal glands. If these defenses are not successful, an opossum may play dead.

When captured or surprised during daylight, opossums appear stupid and inhibited. They are surprisingly intelligent, however. They rank above dogs in some learning and discrimination tests.

Damage

Although opossums may be considered desirable as game animals, certain individuals may be a nuisance near homes where they may get into garbage, bird feeders, or pet food. They may also destroy poultry, game birds, and their nests.

Diseases-Safety

Rabies: Opossums are relatively resistant to rabies. However, as the information below shows, they like all mammals, can carry rabies.

Equine Protozoal Myloencephalitis: is a major threat to horses. Click Equine Protozoal Myloencephalitis to learn more.

Wildlife-Related Diseases

Baylisascaris Infection (raccoon roundworm): A parasitic disease associated with raccoons.

Brucella Infection (brucellosis): A bacterial disease associated with bison, deer, and other wild animals.

Giardia Infection (giardiasis): A parasitic disease associated with animals and their environment (including water).

Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (hantavirus): A rare viral disease associated with some types of wild mice.

Herpesvirus simiae Infection (B virus): A deadly viral disease associated with macaque monkeys.

Histoplasma Infection (histoplasmosis): A fungal disease associated with bat guano (stool).

Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis: A viral disease associated with rodents and house mouse.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis Infection (TB): A bacterial disease associated with deer, elk, and bison.

Plague (Yersinia pestis Infection): A rare bacterial disease associated with wild rodents and fleas.

Rabies: A viral disease associated with wildlife especially raccoons, skunks, and bats.

Tularemia: An infectious disease associated with wildlife especially rodents, rabbits, and hares.

Legal Status

Laws protecting opossums vary from state to state. Usually there are open seasons for hunting or trapping opossums. It is advisable to contact local wildlife authorities before removing nuisance animals.

Acknowledgments

Much of the information on habitat, food habits, and general biology comes from the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management.

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