Opossums: Kentucky's Only Stunning Marsupial!

The opossum is one of Kentucky’s most unique animals and they deserve our admiration and respect. Who else do you know that can eat 4000 ticks a week!

Romeo - one of our education opossums

Romeo - one of our education opossums

The opossum is one of Kentucky’s most unique animals. The Virginia Opossum  (Didelphis virginiana) is the only marsupial in the United States. Kangaroos and Koalas are popular examples of marsupials that live in Australia.

The opossums name came from the Powhatan language and was recorded by John Smith, one of the founders of Jamestown Virginia,  as opassom, meaning “white dog”.

What Is a Marsupial?

Marsupials carry their young in a protective pouch. The pouch is basically a horizontal bag on the belly of the female opossum. The pouch contains muscles and the opossum can actually close her pouch tightly to protect the babies.

Marsupials have a short gestation period and therefore can support large litters. This is an important adaptation because opossums have a short perilous life, usually only 2 - 3 years in the wild.

Baby Opossums Live In The Mother’s Pouch

The babies are the size of a bumble bee when they are born. When an opossum gives birth the babies crawl from the birth canal into the pouch. There they latch on to a teat and hold on. As many as 20 joeys will be born but there are only thirteen nipples. So it is defiantly a race to the nipples. Those that do not get to a nipple do not survive.

Their grip is so hard it can be very difficult to remove them if mom is injured or dead. Only females have a pouch and they can close it so tightly that even if they are swimming no water gets inside.

This short gestation period is because the placenta is fed with a yolk, similar to baby chickens. Many mammals, such as humans are fed by the blood supply to a placenta.

When the newborn opossum crawls into the pouch it is incredibly small and hairless. Not all of its systems are fully functioning yet. The embryonic opossum then completes its development in the mother's pouch.

Young stay in the pouch for the first two months of their life. They then crawl out and often ride on the mothers back. Possums are weaned between 3 – 4 months of age.

In Kentucky opossums often have two litters per year. One in late winter and one in early fall.

Is an Opossum a Rat?

Opossums belong to the family Didelphidae and have a variety of cousins in South and Central America.  In South America, there are roughly 100 species of opossums.

They are not related to rats, even though yes, they do have some similar features.

Opossums are cat-sized animals weighing between 5 – 12 pounds. They typically have a white face and grey body.

In addition to being a marsupial, they have other unique features.

Opossums have prehensile tails, like monkeys, which does not have fur and can curl around and grip things. Their tail also helps provide balance as they climb trees. Opossums also have opposable (grasping) thumbs on their hind feet. They are very good climbers but can not jump.

Opossums have poor eyesight and hearing. They have an excellent sense of smell which they use to look for food.

Kentucky Opossums Have a Bad Rap!

Opossums have a reputation as chicken killers, egg stealers, and raiders of cat food left out on porches. Sadly this slow-moving, non-aggressive animal is often killed on the spot.

Opossums can be a tad smelly. No doubt you know about their protective tactic of “playing possum”? Well in addition to pretending they are dead, the possum also secretes a foul odor from its anal glands to trick potential predators into thinking it is dead.

You do have to admit they are cute in an ugly sort of way. You can become a member and help to support saving opossums!

Check out my new children's book about our own Goober Goose. Proceeds benefit Fox Run Wildlife rehab progam.

Opportunistic Omnivores

 In fact, the opossum has many likable qualities. They are opportunistic omnivores and eat a lot of things that are undesirable to us and other animals. Opossums eat mainly “bad bugs” such as beetles, cockroaches, grasshoppers as well as snails, mice, and carrion.

They are also voracious eaters of ticks. One study found that one opossum could eat 4000 ticks in a week! The opossum does the community good by cleaning up undesirables and lowering disease-carrying vectors. And they are a great helper to organic gardeners!

In urban areas opossums will raid trash cans and pet food.

In turn, opossums are also food for many species. Coyote, fox, bobcats and great horned owls will all prey on opossums.

Baby opossums in our rehab program enjoy hammocks. We make them out of pillow cases and hang in their enclosures.

Baby opossums in our rehab program enjoy hammocks. We make them out of pillow cases and hang in their enclosures.

Opossums Lead The Way In Rabies Prevention

The opossum has an excellent immune system. Opossums will open their mouths and drool when cornered giving the impression that they have rabies. In fact, they rarely get rabies, distemper, or parvo and this behavior is just a defense mechanism.

The opossum has a below average body temperature for a mammal which protects it from many viruses that cannot live below a certain temperature. Scientists who study diseases did research using opossums and rabies and discovered this lower temperature plays a key role in them having fewer incidences of the disease.

The Milwaukee Protocol was developed as a way to treat the full-blown rabies virus in humans. This would be needed if the condition was not diagnosed until several weeks after the bite. This method puts the person in a medically induced coma where their core body temperature is lowered and they are given anti-viral drugs. There have been some successes using this method but it is still considered experimental.

Opossums have also been instrumental in helping scientists develop anti-venom because they are immune to bee stings and poisonous snake bites. Their blood neutralizes the venom. Opossums will actually hunt and kill rattlesnakes and are encouraged residents where these snakes are a problem.

Intern Lauren with her buddy Easton.

Intern Lauren with her buddy Easton.

Are You Dead Or Alive?

Opossums have an interesting defense mechanism. They literally “play dead”. This is a physiological response that is instinctual.

Many of the opossums natural predators do not want to eat dead stuff. The possum lies very still. It can even slow its heart rate. A possum can play dead for several hours if needed.

Do not move a possum that is playing dead unless they are in danger, such as being on a roadway. If your dog is playing with an opossum body, first remove your dog from the area and then go back to make sure there are no apparent injuries. Unless the opossum has bloody wounds it is best to let it be and “awaken” on its own time.

Opossum Playing Dead

Picture by John Ruble

Opossum Trivia:

  • ·        Opossums have the shortest gestation period (11-13 days) and are born so tiny that 16 of them would fit in a teaspoon!

  • ·        Baby opossums, like baby kangaroos, are called Joey’s.

  • ·        The pouch can seal so completely that the babies inside will remain dry even if the mother is swimming.

  • ·        The opossum has 50 teeth, more than any other North American mammal.

  • ·        The opossum has opposable thumbs (like us) on their hind feet.

  • ·        Ancient fossil remains of the opossum have dated to 60 million years ago.

  • ·        Possums have few natural defenses and will play dead to try and fool predators.

Where Do Opossums Live in Kentucky?

Opossums live everywhere in Kentucky! They traditional prefer an area of mixed forest and field that has a water source nearby. However, the opossum is a highly adaptable creature and we often see them in urban areas as well.

Opossums do not usually build their own den. They tend to “hang out” in trees or in abandoned dens from other animals. A possum may stay a few days under your porch.

Opossums do not make a permanent nesting area. Instead they travel around their territory looking for food. When the sun comes up they find a place to sleep for the day.

We give our baby possums knitted “pouches” so they can feel warm and safe.

We give our baby possums knitted “pouches” so they can feel warm and safe.

How Can I Get Rid of an Opossum?

Do you have an opossum in an unwanted area? There are several things you can do. First prevention is the best policy.

Don’t kill an animal just because you think they are in the way. They were here first. Here is some way to prevent them from “bothering” you.

·         Make sure you close up holes along foundations securely with hardware cloth.

·         Close cat and dog doors at dusk and keep tight-fitting lids on garbage cans.

·         Don’t feed cats and dogs outside in the evening and clean up under bird feeders.

·         Do you have an opossum getting onto your roof or attic? Trim tree limbs that overhang your house. Opossums cannot jump and will no longer have access.

·         Opossums are very mobile and change dens every few days to avoid predators so it is often possible to wait out a resident guest.

Do you have an opossum getting in your chicken house? Remember, poultry netting is useless against predators. Invest in secure welded wire such as rabbit fencing or galvanized hardware fencing.

Poultry houses should have secure locks and latches and hardware cloth (not just screening or poultry netting) on windows. Opossums have very dexterous paws and are very good at opening latches.

Keep in mind opossums can climb wood and wire fences. Use wire with smaller than 3-inch spaces. Electric fencing also works well.

Trapping and removing opossums does not work as this will just leave a void soon to be filled by another opossum.

Control Ticks! Make Your Yard Opossum Friendly

If you are interested in supporting the opossum and having them rid your yard of pests there are several things you can do.

  • ·         Build a brush pile in the back of your yard away from neighborhood dogs as a daytime hiding place.

  • ·         Provide water. A shallow dish that is partially sunk into the ground is ideal.

  • ·         Provide a nest box with a 5-inch opening. You can follow these plans to build a possum box. These plans come from the marsupial loving continent of Australia but will work for our Kentucky possums as well.

Release day makes opossums and wildlife rehabbers very happy!

Release day makes opossums and wildlife rehabbers very happy!

Rescuing Baby Opossums

Baby opossums are sometimes in need of rescue. An opossum hit by a car or killed by dogs may have babies living in the pouch or still clinging to her back.

You can bring the mother’s body to your nearest wildlife rehabilitator who can extract the babies. This needs to be done quickly because as soon as the mother dies her milk becomes toxic which can be harmful to the joeys.

Occasionally a baby possum falls off and becomes separated from its mother. An opossum less than 7 inches long, not including the tail, is too young to survive on its own.

Do not feed the babies at all. This can be fatal. You can carefully place these babies in a box with a towel. Add a bottle of warm water wrapped in a towel and secured to the side of the box. Transport to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Membership saves lives. Please consider becoming a member so that we can continue to help baby possums grow up and live their lives in the wild.

We provide formula to help get our babies off to a great start.

Can I Keep It?

It is illegal to keep opossums or any other wildlife as pets in the state of Kentucky. Orphaned or injured babies can be transported to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for intervention.

Wildlife rehabilitators may have a non-releasable opossum that came into their facility. Our Romeo was blind and had mobility issues from an automobile accident. He lived out his life in the workroom and educated people about the wonders of all things opossum !

Ame Vanorio is a freelance writer and the founder/director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center in Falmouth, Ky. We teach environmental education programs and serve as a licensed Kentucky wildlife rehabilitation center. Your donations help us to rescue and save Kentucky wildlife!

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Romeo was blind but he knew what chicken food smelled like!