Temporal range: Late Cretaceous–Recent
Virginia Opossum Didelphis virginiana
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Infraclass: Marsupialia
Order: Didelphimorphia
Gill, 1872
Family: Didelphidae
Gray, 1821

Several; see text

Opossums (Didelphimorphia, /dˌdɛlfɨˈmɔrfiə/) make up the largest order of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere, including 103 or more species in 19 genera. They are also commonly called possums, though that term technically refers to Australian fauna of the suborder Phalangeriformes. The Virginia opossum was the first animal to be named an opossum; usage of the name was published in 1610.[2] The word opossum comes from the Proto-Algonquian aposoum, pronounced *wa˙p- aʔθemw, meaning "white dog" or "white beast/ animal".[3] Opossums probably diverged from the basic South American marsupials in the late Cretaceous or early Paleocene.

Their unspecialized biology, flexible diet and reproductive strategy make them successful colonizers and survivors in diverse locations and conditions.[citation needed]



Didelphimorphs are small to medium-sized marsupials, with the largest just exceeding the size of a large house cat, and the smallest the size of a small mouse. They tend to be semi-arboreal omnivores, although there are many exceptions. Most members of this taxon have long snouts, a narrow braincase, and a prominent sagittal crest. The dental formula is: Upper:, lower: By mammalian standards, this is a very full jaw. The incisors are very small, the canines large, and the molars are tricuspid.

Didelphimorphs have a plantigrade stance (feet flat on the ground) and the hind feet have an opposable digit with no claw. Like some New World monkeys, opossums have prehensile tails. Like all marsupials, the fur consists of awn hair only, and the females have a pouch. The tail and parts of the feet bear scutes. The stomach is simple, with a small cecum.

Opossums have a remarkably robust immune system, and show partial or total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and other pit vipers.[4][5] Opossums are about eight times less likely to carry rabies than wild dogs, and about one in eight hundred opossums are infected with this virus.[6]

Reproduction and life cycle

Sleeping Virginia opossum with babies in her relaxed pouch

As a marsupial, the opossum has a reproductive system including a divided uterus and marsupium, which is the pouch.[7] Opossums do possess a placenta,[8] but it is short-lived, simple in structure, and, unlike that of placental mammals, is not fully functional.[9] The young are therefore born at a very early stage, although the gestation period is similar to many other small marsupials, at only 12 to 14 days.[10] Once born, the offspring must find their way into the marsupium to hold onto and nurse from a teat. The species are moderately sexually dimorphic with males usually being slightly larger, much heavier, and having larger canines than females.[11] The largest difference between the opossum and other mammals is the bifurcated penis of the male and bifurcated vagina of the female (the source of the Latin "didelphis," meaning double-wombed). Opossum spermatozoa exhibit sperm-pairing, forming conjugate pairs in the epidydimis. This may ensure that flagella movement can be accurately coordinated for maximal motility. Conjugate pairs dissociate into separate spermatozoa before fertilization.[12]

Female opossums often give birth to very large numbers of young, most of which fail to attach to a teat, although as many as thirteen young can attach,[11] and therefore survive, depending on species. The young are weaned between 70 and 125 days, when they detach from the teat and leave the pouch. The opossum lifespan is unusually short for a mammal of its size, usually only two to four years. Senescence is rapid.[13]


Didelphimorphs are opportunistic omnivores with a very broad diet. Their diet mainly consists of carrion and many individual opossums are killed on the highway when scavenging for roadkill. They are also known to eat insects, frogs, birds, snakes, small mammals, slugs, and earthworms. Some of their favorite foods are fruits, and they are known to eat avocados, apples, clementines, and persimmons. Their broad diet allows them to take advantage of many sources of food provided by human habitation such as unsecured food waste (garbage) and pet food.

Opossum fur is quite soft.


"Playing possum"

Opossums are usually solitary and nomadic, staying in one area as long as food and water are easily available. Some families will group together in ready-made burrows or even under houses. Though they will temporarily occupy abandoned burrows, they do not dig or put much effort into building their own. As nocturnal animals, they favor dark, secure areas. These areas may be below ground or above.

When threatened or harmed, they will "play possum", mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. This physiological response is involuntary (like fainting), rather than a conscious act. In the case of baby opossums, however, the brain does not always react this way at the appropriate moment, and therefore they often fail to "play dead" when threatened. When "playing possum", the animal's lips are drawn back, the teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, the eyes, close or half-close, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands. Their stiff, curled form can be prodded, turned over, and even carried away without reaction[citation needed]. The animal will typically regain consciousness after a period of between 40 minutes and 4 hours, a process which begins with slight twitchings of the ears.[14]

Juvenile opossum hissing defensively.

Adult opossums do not hang from trees by their tails, as sometimes depicted, though babies may dangle temporarily. Their semi-prehensile tails are not strong enough to support a mature adult's weight. Instead, the opossum uses its tail as a brace and a fifth limb when climbing. The tail is occasionally used as a grip to carry bunches of leaves or bedding materials to the nest. A mother will sometimes carry her young upon her back, where they will cling tightly even when she is climbing or running.

Threatened opossums (especially males) will growl deeply, raising their pitch as the threat becomes more urgent. Males make a clicking "smack" noise out of the side of their mouths as they wander in search of a mate, and females will sometimes repeat the sound in return. When separated or distressed, baby opossums will make a sneezing noise to signal their mother. If threatened, the baby will open its mouth and quietly hiss until the threat is gone.

Hissing or squawking is a defensive process that helps the opossum deter other animals from approaching it.

In hunting and foodways

The Virginia Opossum was once widely hunted and consumed in the United States where available.[15][16][17]

In Dominica and Trinidad the Common Opossum or manicou is popular and can only be hunted during certain times of the year owing to over-hunting. The meat is traditionally prepared by smoking, then stewing. It is light and fine-grained, but the musk glands must be removed as part of preparation. The meat can be used in place of rabbit and chicken in recipes. Historically, hunters in the Caribbean would place a barrel with fresh or rotten fruit to attract opossums that would feed on the fruit or insects.

In Mexico, opossums are known as "tlacuache" or "tlaquatzin". Their tails are eaten as a folk remedy to improve fertility.

Opossum oil (possum grease) is high in essential fatty acids and has been used as a chest rub and a carrier for arthritis remedies given as topical salves.

Opossum pelts have long been part of the fur trade.



  1. ^ a b Gardner, Alfred (16 November 2005). Wilson, Don E., and Reeder, DeeAnn M., eds. ed. Mammal Species of the World (3rd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2 vols. (2142 pp.). pp. 3–18. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0. OCLC 62265494. http://www.bucknell.edu/msw3. 
  2. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. 2000. Houghton Mifflin Company. The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 2010-09-12
  3. ^ Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged . 2003. HarperCollins Publishers. The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 2010-09-12
  4. ^ "The Opossum: Our Marvelous Marsupial, The Social Loner". Wildlife Rescue League. http://www.wildliferescueleague.org/report/opossum.html. 
  5. ^ Journal Of Venomous Animals And Toxins - Anti-Lethal Factor From Opossum Serum Is A Potent Antidote For Animal, Plant And Bacterial Toxins. Retrieved 2009-12-29.
  6. ^ Cantor SB, Clover RD, Thompson RF (07/01/1994). "A decision-analytic approach to postexposure rabies prophylaxis". Am J Public Health 84 (7): 1144–8. doi:10.2105/AJPH.84.7.1144. PMC 1614738. PMID 8017541. http://www.ajph.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=8017541. Retrieved 2009-12-29. 
  7. ^ Campbell, N. & Reece, J. (2005)BiologyPearson Education Inc.
  8. ^ Enders, A.C. & Enders, R.K. (2005). "The placenta of the four-eyed opossum (Philander opossum))". The Anatomical Record 165 (3): 431–439. doi:10.1002/ar.1091650311. 
  9. ^ Krause, W.J. & Cutts, H. (1985). "Placentation in the Opossum, Didelphis virginiana". Acta Anatomica 123 (3): 156–171. doi:10.1159/000146058. PMID 4061035. http://content.karger.com/ProdukteDB/produkte.asp?Doi=146058. 
  10. ^ O'Connell, Margaret A. (1984). Macdonald, D.. ed. The Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: Facts on File. pp. 830–837. ISBN 0-87196-871-1. 
  11. ^ a b North American Mammals: Didelphis virginiana. Retrieved 2009-12-29.
  12. ^ Moore, H.D. (1996). "Gamete biology of the new world marsupial, the grey short-tailed opossum, monodelphis domestica". Reproduction, fertility, and development 8 (4): 605–15. doi:10.1071/RD9960605. 
  13. ^ Opossum Facts. Retrieved 2009-12-29.
  14. ^ http://www.opossumsocietyus.org/injured_opossum.html
  15. ^ Keith Sutton. Possum days gone by. ESPN Outdoors. January 12, 2009. Retrieved 2009-12-29.
  16. ^ Wild Game Recipes online. Retrieved 2009-12-29.
  17. ^ The joy of the ‘Joy of Cooking,’ circa 1962. Retrieved 2009-12-29.
  18. ^ Lew, Daniel; Roger Pérez-Hernández, Jacint Ventura (2006). "Two new species of Philander (Didelphimorphia, Didelphidae) from northern South America". Journal of Mammalogy 87 (2): 224–237. doi:10.1644/05-MAMM-A-065R2.1. 
  19. ^ David A. Flores, DA, Barqueza, RM, and Díaza, MM (2008). "A new species of Philander Brisson, 1762 (Didelphimorphia, Didelphidae)". Mammalian Biology 73 (1): 14–24. doi:10.1016/j.mambio.2007.04.002. 

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • opossum — [ ɔpɔsɔm ] n. m. • 1640; mot angl. amér., de l algonquin oposon 1 ♦ Espèce de sarigue (marsupiaux) à beau pelage noir, blanc et gris. 2 ♦ Fourrure de cet animal. Manteau d opossum. Par ext. Opossum d Australie : fourrure du renard phalanger… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Opossum — O*pos sum, n. [Of N. American Indian origin.] (Zo[ o]l.) Any American marsupial of the genera {Didelphys} and {Chironectes}; called also {possum}. The common species of the United States is {Didelphys Virginiana}. [1913 Webster] Note: Several… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Opossum — * Opossum spielen. Das Opossum, die amerikanische Beutelratte, stellt sich, wenn angegriffen oder auch nur berührt, augenblicklich todt und lässt alles über sich ergehen; es ist daher ein häufiges und allgemeines Sprichwort von jemand, der sich… …   Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon

  • opossum — ☆ opossum [ə päs′əm ] n. pl. opossums or opossum [< AmInd (Algonquian) name, lit., white beast] any of various families (esp. Didelphidae) of marsupials; esp., any of a small, omnivorous, tree dwelling American species (Didelphis marsupialis)… …   English World dictionary

  • Opossum — Opossum, eine Art der Beutelratte (s.d.) …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Opossum [1] — Opossum, das Fell der virginischen Beutelratte (s. d.), kommt in großen Mengen in den Handel und wird seltener naturell als gefärbt zu Muffen, kleinen Kragen und Besätzen verarbeitet. Als Imitation dienen Steinmarder, Skunks, Waschbär und Iltis.… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Opossum [2] — Opossum, Fetischberg, s. Obossum …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

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  • opossum — ► NOUN 1) an American marsupial which has a naked prehensile tail and hind feet with an opposable thumb. 2) Austral./NZ a possum. ORIGIN Algonquian, white dog …   English terms dictionary

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