Opossum By Karen Earley

Opposum

by Karen Earley

 

*We believe this article was written by a former TGO resident, Karen Earley, between 2004 – 2006.  She wrote a series of articles for the TGO Nature Center titled “On Nature’s Side”. This article did not have a photo so I added one (click on the photo for a closer look).  Enjoy!

 

TGO Nature Center, Nature, The Great Outdoors, Titusville, Florida, Education, Mammal, Opossum, Possum, Photo Album

Photo Courtesy of Pat Ellwanger

 

With characteristics that include a pink nose, naked black ears with white tips, prominent whiskers, a pointed snout, a two foot body and a foot long hairless tail, the Virginia opossum may, to some, look a little strange. Grooming themselves often they are considered quite clean animals. Shy and solitary by nature, they come together only to mate, after which the male immediately leaves. The opossum’s tail is prehensile, capable of grasping. It’s used for balance, support, and to carry nesting material, but usually only young opossums can support their weight and hang from their tail. It’s the only marsupial found in the US.

The babies of marsupials do not fully develop in their mother’s womb. The fertilized eggs develop into embryos in the uterus and are born 12 to 14 days after conception. Upon birth, the baby opossums move out of the womb and crawl several inches forward into mother’s fur lined external pouch. This is surely one of nature’s marvels, being both blind and extremely tiny, so small that 20 would fit on a teaspoon and 200 weigh only an ounce. Usually only 7 to 8 young are born. They make their way to the pouch ( in as little as 17 seconds ) grab onto a teat, and hang on for 2 to 3 months. When the surviving babies are only slightly bigger than a mouse, they wander out of the pouch and hang onto the hair of mother’s back and neck, returning to the pouch to nurse. After another month, they can care for themselves and wander off.

Females have 2 uteruses, which is the meaning of the Latin name “Didelphis”. Male opossums have a penis with a forked tip, the significance is not scientifically clear. It is false folklore that they mate in the females nose!

Feigning death is a defensive tactic in which they go into a faint, called “catatonia”, causing the heart rate and breathing to slow. They lie on their side, with mouth open, eyes closed, and won’t respond even to a strong poke. This condition may last from a minute to several hours. Other defenses include a vicious snarl, nasty bites, or a strong odor from anal glands. Natural enemies include owls, bobcat, hawks, panther, and dog, but these predators will only eat an opossum in extreme hunger.

Their diet includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs, worms, small fish, insects, mice, frogs, and rattlesnakes. They are immune to the poisonous venom of America’s pit vipers.

Opossums are popular research animals for drug studies relating to human gastrointestinal ailments, having a bile system similar to humans. They are also useful in aging studies because they age very quickly, rarely living 2 years.

 

 

TGO Nature Center – “Living in Harmony with Nature

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