By Cheryl Conley, TWRC Wildlife Center
So, what am I referring to? I’m referring to the totally awesome opossum! Now some of you will disagree with me but let me tell you about the opossum and then see if you agree with me.
The first thing you should know is that the opossum is a hero in the fight against ticks. According to the National Wildlife Federation, an opossum can eat up to 4,000 ticks in one week helping to slow down the spread of Lyme disease. In addition to ticks, they eat cockroaches, rats, mice, snails and slugs—actually, they eat almost anything, keeping our environment free of all the nasty things we don’t like. Snakes? Yep. Opossums are immune to the venom of poisonous snakes.
Is rabies a concern of yours? Not to worry. Although any mammal can be a carrier of rabies, the chance of opossums being a carrier are very rare. The body temperature of the opossum is very low making it almost impossible for the virus to survive.
Dinosaurs roamed our earth 70 million years ago. Guess who roamed it with them? Opossums. Any animal that can survive for that long deserves my respect.
“Playing ‘possum” is a real thing but opossums don’t have any control over it. When frightened, some become paralyzed with fear. They drop, their lips draw back exposing their teeth and their anal glands secrete a bad smelling liquid which deters predators. They will recover in one to four hours. Some scientists believe that “playing ‘possum” evolved as a defense mechanism because opossums move so slowly and can’t outrun predators.
The opossum is the only marsupial in North America. Females can give birth to up to 25 babies after a short gestation period of 11 to 13 days. The babies are so small that 20 of them could fit into a teaspoon. The babies make their way to mama’s pouch where only 13 teats are available. Obviously, not all the babies survive for this reason. The lucky ones latch onto the teat and stay attached for up to 3 months. They climb out and cling to their mother’s back for up to 2 weeks when they “fall” off. They are then on their own.
The opossum has 50 teeth—more than any other North American land mammal. The hairless tail is used for balance, grasping branches and carrying nesting materials but is not used to hang upside down. This is a common misconception. They also have opposable thumbs on their hind feet used for holding onto branches.
Are you now convinced that opossums are totally awesome? Even if you’re not, we encourage you to “live and let live.” They serve a purpose and deserve a place in our world.
If you find a dead opossum with babies in the pouch, please don’t remove them. Although difficult, we ask that you place the expired mom in a box and bring her to us. We will carefully remove the babies and care for them until they can be safely released back to the wild.
TWRC Wildlife Center can help you with all of your wildlife concerns. If you can’t find the information you need, please call us at 713-468-TWRC.