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Virginia Opossums

Virginia OpossumsThe Name "Opossum": The first known usage of the word "opossum" occured in 1610 in promotional literature for the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement. It read: "There are ... Apossouns, in shape like to pigges." One must remember that the "pigges" (pigs) were a much more feral looking animal in the 1600s, with longer hair, unlike the round pink pigs we are accustomed to today. This word "Apossoun" was taken from the Algonquian Indian word for the animal. Although other animals in South America and Australia are called "possums," they are really not closely related to the Virginia animal and only derive their name by dint of a general similar shape. True opossums are unique to North America.

Location: The Virginia opossum is found in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, down through Mexico and South America and as far south as Costa Rica. It is also well established along the North American Pacific Coast from southermost California north to Crescent Beach, British Columbia.

Habitat: Terrestrial and arboreal. Lives in virtually all areas, but prefers wooded land.

Description: The Virginia opossum is about the size of a house cat. It has short legs and an opposable big toe which is clawless. Its nose/muzzle is long, pointed, and rather flat. Its ears are thin and hairless. Its prehensile tail is long, scaly, and completely almost completely hairless. Its long fur can be gray or brown, with many white "guard" hairs. It grows to about 15 or 20 inches long and weighs between 9 and 13 pounds. Females are generally somewhat smaller than males.

Behavior: Hunted by humans for its meat as well as its fur, the Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial species found in the United States. The rest of the marsupials lost out to the carnivores in America, but this possum was able to survive by virtue of two attributes. For its size, it can be a very fierce fighter, which can startle many carnivores into looking elsewhere for a meal. But in the event that the possum runs into a carnivore much larger, then it has the ability to "play dead." No matter what the attacker does, the possum just lies motionless. Playing "possum" like this does not always succeed, because a few carnivores enjoy carion (food that is already dead); however, in those instances where the larger animal is interested only in protecting its territory or a large female is only interested in protecting its young, this "dead" attitude works quite well, and the larger attacker simply walks away.

The Virginia opossum is a solitary nocturnal animal. It is omnivorous, eating mostly insects, fruit, small vertebrates, and eggs. It builds nests by packing leaves into tree hollows and is both arboreal and terrestrial. It is not uncommon for opossums in northern Canada to lose part of their tail or ears to frostbite.

Reproduction: A litter typically consists of seven young. The female and produces a litter once or twice a year following only a 12- or 13-day gestation, after which the babies move into the mother's well developed pouch. They are weaned at about 100 days of age, at which point they begin traveling on the mother's back.

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Virginia Opossums