It is near midnight. You are pulling up into your driveway after a late evening out. As you pull up the drive, the headlights of your car fall upon the trash cans by the garage, and to your dismay, reveal a awkward, large, roundish looking creature rummaging around in them. The creature turns briefly to look at you and its beady eyes meet yours. It stares at you momentarily as the car pulls up before shuffling off slowly into the darkness, dragging its hairless, rat-like tail behind it. You have just encountered an opossum, one of America’s most prevalent scavengers. Maybe you live in rural Dexter, or perhaps in suburban Ann Arbor or right in downtown Jackson; location is of no consequence here, for the opossum is found in rural areas, suburbs and big cities alike.
Opossum biology and habitat
Opossums (commonly misspelled as “possums”) are common throughout the United States. Opossums are a carnivorous mammal that belong to the marsupial family; in fact, opossums are the only marsupial native to North America (marsupials are a class of animals that carry their young in a pouch after a short gestation period, the most famous of which is the Australian kangaroo). Although opossums are carnivorous by classification due to their teeth, they are omnivores by diet. Opossums are primarily scavengers and will feed on carrion – in fact, many opossums are killed on the road while feeding on other roadkill. Opossums will also eat insects, frogs, various types of fruit, earthworms, garbage and even the waste of other animals.
The opossum is most commonly found in areas with a lot of low lying cover and is well adapted to living among human dwellings in cities. Like most animals that thrive in the urban environment, opossums are nocturnal, meaning they are active at night. It is not uncommon to see opossums rummaging through trash and wandering along roadsides in the evening. Opossums are naturally timid and try to avoid interaction with people and domestic animals. Opossums do climb trees, but contrary to the popular myth they cannot hang from their tails (though they do feign death when in danger, a trait that is called “playing opossum”).
Opossums can reproduce 1 to 3 times per year depending on climate and environment. Gestation is brief, only 11 to14 days; the young are extremely small, so tiny that 20 can fit into a tea spoon. Once the tiny young are born they find their way into the mothers pouch, where they will remain for the following two and a half months to continue their maturation. Though opossums can breed at any time of year, the primary breeding occurs from December to February in Michigan, which means that the young become active anywhere from late April to early August.
When opossums come slinking…
Opossums can become a nuisance to humans because of their scavenging. Opossums, like raccoons, will get into trash cans and other waste containers. They have been known to kill young domestic animals (e.g. kittens). Their search for food can lead them wander inside unsecured homes or garages, where they become trapped. Dog and cat doors are common entry points for opossums, who will wander in through these doors but do not possess the intelligence to find the exit again. Opossums are also a danger to young domesticated animals (i..e, kittens and puppies); because opossums are slow and timid, they are often attacked by aggressive puppies and kittens. However, the opossum, if provoked, can easily kill these young with its extremely sharp teeth.
Although opossums are not usually aggressive, they pose several threats to humans. Opossums have extremely poor hygiene; in fact, they are one of the filthiest of all North American mammals and may carry diseases such as as spotted fever, tuberculosis, relapsing fever, tularemia, toxoplasmosis, coccidiosis, trichomoniasis, and Chagas disease. They also carry a whole host of vermin in their fur and a single opossum may be infested with fleas, ticks, mites, and lice. Because opossums eat fruit and can climb trees to get at it, they frequently contaminate apple harvests. Though opossums are not dangerous, their extremely poor hygiene and the variety of diseases they carry means that homeowners should not get too close to them.
The most effective response to most of these scenarios is to live trap and relocate the animal or manually remove it, if it has gotten into the home. In some cases the environment can be modified to deter opossum activity. If an opossum is causing problems in your area contact Creature Control at 1-800-441-1519. For situations where an opossum has wandered inside the home, Creature Control does offer 24-hour emergency animal removal service.
- Opossum have a top running speed of only 7 miles per hour.
- Oppossums can play dead if threatened.
- The word opossum entered in English language in 1610, from the Powhatan (Algonquian) apasum, which means “white animal.”
- The opossum’s normal life span is only 2 to 4 years, making it one of the shortest lived mammals.