Mammals in the Forest: Virginia opossum

By Kelly Vowels

I don’t know what it is about winter, but it’s the best time to see many species of mammals. Maybe it’s the loss of cover of leaves, or some mammal species are more active during the day in winter. It may also be because fewer people are in the woods, so there are more opportunities to see wildlife. One of my favorite mammals to see in winter is the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Did you know that opossum and possum are not the same species? The opossum was named by Captain John Smith in the 17th century and is based on the Algonquian word that means white dog or beast. There are several species of opossum, and they are native to North and South America. They also are marsupials, which means they carry their young in pouches.  There are several species of opossum in South America, but only one in North America, the Virginia opossum, and this is the species that Smith described. Virginia opossum is the only native marsupial in North America. 

Opossum at BernheimOn the other hand, the possum was named by Sir Joseph Banks and is found in Australia and other countries. It is also a marsupial, but unlike opossums, they have furry tails and give birth to typically only one young, while opossums will have many young at once. Also, young possums are called “joeys,” while opossum offsprings are not. To make things more confusing, many people in North America call the Virginia opossum “possum.” This differentiation is another example of the importance of using scientific names when discussing both flora and fauna species.

Some other cool facts about opossums are they have 50 teeth, which is more than any other mammal in North America. Opossums also have prehensile tails, which means their tails can grasp objects. They use their tails to balance and climb, but it’s a myth that they can hang from their tails and sleep. This myth may have started when people saw young suspended from branches with their tails. Juveniles will hang from branches briefly while they figure out how to move around, but even their weight is too much for their tails to hold them for too long. 

They are many other interesting facts about opossums, such as they ‘play dead,’ have thumbs, are resistant to the venom from rattlesnakes and copperheads, and they are vulnerable to frostbite and hypothermia because of their naked tails. Bernheim Forest is home to this fascinating mammal and so many more, and we hope, with your support, we can continue to protect these fascinating creatures.

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