Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Oh, possum!

Little Henry with Patti, Briar Bush's
business manager
Back in October 2013 at the nature center where I work, we acquired a young opossum from a wildlife rehabilitator to use in our educational programs. Henry, as we named him, was found in his mother's pouch along with his seven siblings when she was hit by a car. Although the mother did not survive, all of the babies did. Two of the siblings, however, had an infection commonly called "crispy ear." Crispy ear is a bacterial necrosis that causes the infected areas to fall off, typically affecting the ears, toes, and tail. Henry's sibling was able to be treated and released along with the six other brothers and sisters, but poor Henry lost all but one of his toes at the knuckle and the tip of his tail before his infection cleared. An opossum that cannot climb to escape predators is doomed to death, and so Henry was deemed non-releasable and came to live at Briar Bush. In the four months that I have been using Henry in programs, I have come across many "myth-conceptions" about opossums that I thought I would take the opportunity to clear up today. So let's get right to it!

Their full name is Virginia opossum
Though many of us call them "possums," the full name is opossum. Opossums belong to the largest family of marsupials (mammals with pouches) in the world, Didelphidae, of which there are 95 species. The Virginia opossum is the only marsupial found in all of North America, so consider yourself fortunate if you see one! Our local opossum is also one of the most variable-sized mammals in existence: males can range from 1.7 to 14 pounds and females from 11 ounces to 8.2 pounds when fully grown. 

Opossums can be cute...really!
Not only can opossums be cute, but they can be ridiculously cute. Allow me to demonstrate here...
Henry says "HI!"

and here...
As you can tell, Henry is quite photogenic...
when I can actually get him to stop moving for one picosecond.

And just to prove it's not just the babies that can be cute, here...
He's smiling because he's warming your heart.

Opossums only play tough guys on TV (and in your yard)
When most people come to me with stories about their opossum encounters, it usually involves this kind of depiction:
...which is understandably terrifying.

Opossums do have the most teeth out of any land mammal in North America, 50 in all (we have 32 by comparison), which they will not hesitate to bear when startled. Even Henry gapes when I wake him up suddenly or spook him when he has his head under some leaves, looking for a tasty treat of dead worms. But opossums are all bluff; they are undeserving of their nasty and aggressive reputations. Opossums are also amazingly resistant to rabies, another myth that has landed this species into a lot of trouble when they are killed out of suspicions of being rabid. In fact when push comes to shove, opossums resort to playing dead rather than going on the offensive, which brings me to my next myth...

Opossums can't snap out of "playing possum"
In the movie Over the Hedge, there is a scene in which Ozzie the opossum plays dead in order to fool the humans. Once he discovers that an exterminator has some more invasive plans in mind, Ozzie immediately recovers and scampers to safety. In reality, not only can opossums not choose when to play dead (it is an involuntary response to extreme fear) but their bodies go into such a state of
shock that it can take up to four hours for them to recover. They do put on quite the show, however; mouth open, drooling, stiff-bodied, they even produce a foul-smelling liquid from their anus that makes them smell like a rotting carcass. There are only two problems with this clever defense. First, playing 'possum in response to a car is highly ineffective and does result in a number of opossum deaths. Also, if a predator comes along that doesn't mind eating dead animals, say a bald eagle, I can't imagine the opossum will fare well here either.

Opossums can do lots of things with their tails, but hanging is not one of them
Opossums' tails are perhaps their most distinguishing feature, and the reason that many people shudder at the thought of opossums and their rat-like appearances. But an opossum's tail is an incredible tool, helping them to balance when walking on narrow branches, acting as a fifth leg when reaching for a distant object in the trees, and even carrying plant material to make nests with. However, opossums are not capable of hanging upside down from their tails. When you see a photo like this on the internet...
the featured opossums are not hanging by choice, but rather because they are attempting to save themselves from a nasty fall (or my guess is that it was staged to result in a "cute" photo opportunity) and only have a short amount of time to recover before the strength in their tails give out.

Opossums are incredible, amazing, misunderstood animals
Opossums are called ugly, nasty, and vicious, but I hope that you have now seen a different side to these marvelous marsupials. Even if you still shudder at the sight of an opossum, you can still secretly think they're pretty cool in their own right and respect their role as a scavenger and clean up crew in the animal kingdom. It's ok, I won't tell. And Henry won't either...he's too busy looking for dead worms to eat.

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