Friday, April 24, 2009

Awesome Opossum

Wednesday afternoon I went outside for a walk and saw a critter waddling across the field. An opossum! Opossums are normally nocturnal, so I was glad it was out and about during the day so I could get some pictures.

I approached it cautiously, because I didn't want to scare it. Opossums go into a sort of coma when severely frightened. This is where the phrase "playing 'possum" comes from. It is almost as if it were dead. You can shake it and it still will not respond. The heart beat slows down, the breathing is slight and the body temperature lowers. This defense mechanism works because some predators do not prefer to eat what they have not killed. Eventually, the opossum will come out of it and go on its way. So scaring the opossum would mean I would not get any good pics. :(

Anyway, we had a stare down. It apparently thought I wanted it for vittles, so it went under a neighboring conifer for more protection.

I was hoping the opossum would "grin" at me and show its toothy smile, another defense mechanism. The gaped mouth and hiss even makes most humans back up.

Photo from Wikipedia
Even though the opossum has 50 teeth, more than any other land mammal, they rarely bite in defense. The skull shows the impressive teeth that are used mostly for eating. Opossums are omnivores and opportunists eating about anything they can find. They have an important job in the wild because they help keep down the rodent population by frequently eating rats and mice.

Opossums have an almost hairless prehensile tails that they use to hold on to branches as they climb. Something nipped the end off of this one's tail! Their feet are equipped with long toenails for climbing and with back feet that have thumbs for grasping branches. The long white guard hairs are also evident in this picture. This top layer of coarse fur helps keep the elements and dirt away from the softer, warm fur underneath. It works in the same way an overcoat does for us.

They have a large nose for discovering food. You can see a small drip coming from the mouth. The opossum is salivating, another defense mechanism. This is to fool me into thinking it is sick and therefore not worth the risk of eating. The opossum has long whiskers, as well, to help find its way around tight spaces in the dark. Each whisker has sensory nerves at the base so when the whisker brushes against something, the opossum knows how much room it has to squeeze through.

Photo from Opossum Society of the United States

The most amazing thing about opossums is the reproductive cycle. A baby opossum is born 11-13 days after conception! How is this possible? Opossums are the only North American marsupial, distantly related to kangaroos. Their young are born very small, then they finish developing within their mother's pouch. Above is a picture of a newborn. They weigh about .13 grams at birth. (A penny weighs about 2.5-3 grams depending on the year it was produced.) They must crawl up their mothers belly and go into her pouch to locate a teat. The mother will assist with this by licking a path for the young to follow. There they will remain attached to the teat for about 2 months. Around two and a half months, the baby opossums' eyes will open and they will soon outgrow the pouch. They will then ride around on the mothers back, learning where to find food and defense stategies. At five months they are on their own.

My friend, Dawn, is a rehabber and I had the pleasure of raising four baby opossums one year. Boy, they are ravenous little guys! They lived in my back bathroom for a few months. Occasionally they would make a break for it and take off for the living room to camp under the furniture. My cats would always tell me where they were. Cautiously approaching them and yowling about the whole experience. Pretty funny! I wish I had it on video.

Do you like animals? Check out more at the Camera Critters site.



DrowseyMonkey said...

It is odd to see them in the day. Maybe he has insomnia? lol

Tulip said...

beautiful picture of opossum, i never seen this kind of animal before.

LadyBanana said...

What a cute little critter - don't think we have them here..

Janet Creamer said...

Hi all,

Thanks for the comments. Drowsey Monkey, they sometimes come out during the day if they are hungry or they are disturbed while sleeping.

Tulip and Lady Banana, I tend to forget my site can be global! You are correct, the opossums only live in the Western hemisphere so you would not see them in the Phillipines or in London.

Karen said...

Neat photos...

We have oppossums in New Zealand as well. They used to get into my vege garden .. they loved the melons and the pumpkins and squash..

I haven't seen any here in the US, where I'm currently living.

They also 'tree' when scared ... which means they'll climb up the nearest tall thing they can find, be it a tree, person, dog, etc.

My Uncle's dog was badly injured when a oppossum decided to use him as a tree..

Misty Dawn said...

A very wonderful and informative post!

That second photo is GREAT - you caught the critter smiling ;-)

Ria said...

thats so cool! ive never seen one of these creatures in person ever!

dAwN said...

Oh did I miss your posts????
oh well..i am catching up now...
I had no idea that Opossums were that small when informative post..
We once saw an Oppusum in a tree..and it played dead when we got close...silly critter1

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the information i was doing my science project and i needed information about the opossums whiskers thanks.

icare said...

Thanks for your post. I love opossums! I think they are darling and so misunderstood! It is real shame that they are blind. Sadly, I see many on the road - why can't people pay attention?? Such a shame!

Pamela L said...

There are opossums in the Eastern Hemisphere but they are named possums and as with any animal that appears thru out the world, look alittle different. But they are all marsupials (have pouches for babies). Also opossums are not blind. Interesting fact, because of a very good immune system and a lower body temp, opossums very rarely are ever infected with rabies and most have at least a partial but usually a total immunity to the vemon of pit vipers (rattlesnakes, water mocassins & cottonmouths). I love opossums and have fostered many. A very cool animal.