The opossum: an unusual critter

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Throughout the years since the turn of the last century, Virginia opossums are among a few native North American mammals occurring in the Southeast that have consistently been able to maintain stable or growing populations.

Others include gray squirrels, coyotes, raccoons, and armadillos.

Possums are unique among North American relatively large mammals in several respects. Following a gestation period of only two or three weeks, the young at birth are about the size of honeybees. When giving birth, the female lies on her back and licks a pathway for the newborns to crawl from her genital opening to a pouch in her abdomen, the marsupium. No other North American mammal has a marsupium.

Upon successfully entering the marsupium, the babies attach to a teat and remain attached, nursing, until they are about 2-3 months old. Then they crawl out and remain with their mother for one to three months. When away from the den, the mother carries the young on her back.

The female possum’s reproductive tract is bicornuate, or “two-horned,” and the male’s os priapi, or penis bone, is two-pronged.

On the subject of penis bones, all male mammals possess them except for members of the family Hominidae, which consists of the great apes and humans. Another unusual aspect of the male possum’s reproductive anatomy is the location of its testicles, which are in front of, rather than behind, the penis, a feature that has always puzzled mammalogists.

One reason for the possum’s success is its fecundity; females give birth to an average of 15 offspring annually. Another is its opportunistic feeding habits. Possums consume insects, snails, earthworms, reptiles, amphibians, eggs and nestlings of ground-nesting birds, fruits, leaves, grass, bulbs and carrion.

The lifespan of possums in the wild, however, is short, averaging only between one and two years.

Some people used to hunt and eat possums, but apparently very few do nowadays. During my younger years, I owned a hound dog, and some friends and I enjoyed possum hunting. About daylight we’d take any possums we caught to town and sell them for 75 cents apiece. There was never a shortage of purchasers.

I once had a pet possum – if in truth a possum can be a pet.

I acquired this possum when it was very young, the sole survivor of a family the mother of which had been hit by an automobile. My daughter, Mary, helped raise the baby possum, which enjoyed snuggling in and holding onto her hair.

When half-grown, the possum was kept in a cage during much of the day. Each afternoon when I came home, I’d let the possum relieve itself in the yard and then bring it indoors. It would walk across the room, climb onto the couch where I was seated and crawl onto my lap.

It seemed to enjoy being scratched behind the ears, but unlike pet raccoons and a gray fox I raised, the possum was completely lacking in any semblance of playfulness.

After about six months we decided that the possum was old enough to fend for itself and deserved to be released into the wild. We took it to a friend’s house who lived in the country and agreed to allow us to release the possum on his property. The friend, the late Dr. Sam Lyle, said he would offer some dog food we brought to the possum if it showed up and appeared to be hungry.

When we released the possum, it walked into the garage, curled up and went to sleep on a blanket in the bed of a dog owned by Sam.

The dog was not much larger than the possum, but he obviously resented the intruder occupying his bed. After studying his alternatives, the dog decided not to engage in a direct confrontation with the intruder but instead to extract his blanket from underneath the sleeping possum, which he proceeded to do.

I’m confident he was thinking, in dog thought, “I’m not about to get in a fight with that ugly critter, but I’ll be damned if I’ll allow it to sleep on my blanket.”

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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