The Opossum: American Marsupial

By Dave Hanks

Night sounds can be mysterious. One of the intriguing factors of spending a night in the wild, is the crunching, gnawing, growling sounds that inundate your ears. Many of these sounds (hopefully you’re lucky enough to spot the maker) are from creatures that are seldom seen. The Opossum is one of these creatures.

Marsupials in America are indeed seldom seen. As a group, they are very fascinating animals. All Marsupials have pouches, and mammary glands are within the pouch. The American Opossum has thirteen, while kangaroos have only two. The two kangaroo glands produce separate types of milk – regular in one and colostrum in the other. Kangaroos are always pregnant. When one Joey is weaned, the dormant embryo starts to develop and the mammary glands then switch roles in the production of milk. The Opossum however, gives birth to a big litter – more than she can feed. The weaker young, deprived of food, die. It’s a different type of “survival of the Fittest.” Upon leaving the pouch, the babies “hitch a ride” on Mom’s back. She positions her tail pointing forward toward her head. The young cling to the tail like a standing commuter that grasps the overhead railing on a bus.

There are five finger-like toes on both front and back feet and the animal leaves a distinctive circular track. The movement of its feet is called pacing, which is the moving of the legs on the same side at the same time. Other pacers are bears, raccoons, skunks, badgers, beavers, porcupines, and woodchucks. The Opossum is well known for its habit of playing dead when threatened. It has also been a food item (possum) for the poor folk of the southeastern USA. It is a short-lived creature – living about two years in the wild or four in captivity.

In Tennessee, high upon the banks of the Mississippi River is a campground. While camping there, we heard gnawing sounds in the night. It was an Opossum. A very shy animal that would scurry away at the slightest disturbance, but its visceral needs constantly drew it back to where we were camped. This was our first experience with this novel animal.

(Our midnight visitor)