Real Name: Possum or Opossum?

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Real Name: Possum or Opossum?

Possum: top right, Opossums: left and bottom right.
Possum: top right, Opossums: left and bottom right.

Have you ever heard that possums can be dangerous, smell bad, or like to hide in crawl spaces like your attic? I’ll give you a hint: all of these things are true… except I’m willing to bet that you’ve never seen a possum.

If it’s not a possum, what is that brown and white furry creature with sharp teeth and a long tail that scurries about your yard and home? That would be the opossum. Yes, you read that right: an opossum and a possum are two different things, and it’s always been that way.

The critter we see in North America is actually called the Virginia opossum, to be specific. The term “possum” refers to a cousin of the opossum that lives in Australia and New Guinea, but not in North America. Though commonly used as a nickname for opossums, the word possum is an inaccurate description of the animal. Here are a few reasons why:




DIFFERENCES

1.Size

Opossums have coarse hair and small ears. They have a much longer tail and tend to be skinny and long with narrow, spindly toes. Possums appear much more rotund, with large ears and fluffy fur. They have thick, furry tails that complement their round, fluffy bodies.

2.Color

The opossum has a white face with black ears, and its body ranges from grayish white to brown. It has a long, strong tail with no fur that looks a lot like a rat’s tail. A possum can be a variety of colors, including silver, brown, gold, black, or any combination thereof.

Opossum Babies

3.Teeth

Why does the opossum look so scary with its mouth open? The opossum actually has 50 razor-sharp teeth lining its little mouth that cause it to take on the appearance of a monster in the night. The possum, however, has shorter, rounder teeth, making it appear more cute and friendly.

4.Adaptations

Remember that rat-like tail we brought up earlier? It has a special use for the opossum. The tail acts as a semi-prehensile limb, which means that it can be used like an extra arm or leg to help the opossum hold on to trees and other obstacles as it climbs and maneuvers its way about its habitat. Because possums have short tails, they are unable to use it as an extra limb. Opossums also perform a cool trick we commonly call “playing possum” (a misnomer, since the term applies to an opossum’s talent). This occurs when an opossum feels scared or anxious. The animal emits a foul smell similar to dead flesh and lies perfectly still in an attempt to convince potential predators that it is already dead. This behavior, though quite a useful protection mechanism, has not been documented in possums. Instead, they make a peculiar whiny grumbling sound when disturbed.

5.Scientific Names

The opossum belongs to the order Didelphimorphia, which means that it is the largest of the marsupials in the Western Hemisphere. The possum, on the other hand, is Phalangeridae, which means it is a medium-sized marsupial.

6.Original Names

Famous American colonist Captain John Smith named the opossum after seeing them in Virginia. The possum was actually named by Captain James Cook and his comrade Joseph Banks, who saw a creature that was somewhat like Smith’s opossums from Virginia while in Australia. This created the division between the Virginia opossum of North America and the common brushtail possum of Australia and New Guinea.

Possum Babies
Possum Babies

With all of these unmistakable differences, why is it that Cook and Banks saw the possum as so similar to the opossum in the first place?



SIMILARITIES

1.Variable Diet

Opossums and possums both have a greatly variable diet. They are opportunistic omnivores, which means that they eat both meat and plants whenever it is available and convenient for them to do so.

2.Jack & Jill

Both species use the same terms for genders: a male is a Jack, a female a Jill, and a baby a joey. Adults attract attention by smacking their jaws together, while babies hiss and sneeze. They belong to the marsupial class, which means that babies are born undeveloped inside the mother and have to climb into her pouch in order to finish growing and become independent creatures. At birth, they are smaller than your pinky fingernail. The journey is as difficult for them as it would be for us humans to crawl across the entire length of a football field using only our arms!

3.Road Kill

Marsupials are especially at risk when victims of road kill. Because the joeys are so tiny and tucked away inside the mother’s pouch, it can be difficult to tell if a dead or dying opossum is carrying babies. It is therefore a good idea to call your local wildlife rescue or removal service whenever you see an injured potential mother to ensure that professionals are able to observe the animal and save the young if need be.

4.Nocturnal

Both possums and opossums are nocturnal, which means they are active at night and sleep during the day. They tend to live in habitats with dense foliage that allows them to sneak around. These traits make them potentially a highly destructive creature, since they will eat nearly anything and are very good at hiding.

5.Attics, Sheds and Removals

One major similarity between possums and opossums is that both seek shelter in the attics and sheds of our homes and often proceed to destroy them. This has earned them the common classification of a “pest animal”. Many people who don’t want the critters living in and around their homes have them killed. Extermination is an unnecessary evil; there are companies that will send someone to your home to humanely trap and remove the nuisance wildlife instead. It isn’t the fault of the animal that nature tells them to hide in a dark, warm place, and killing the individuals won’t help you to fix the long-term problem. Contractors can evaluate the area in which the possums or opossums tend to enter and help you to come up with a solution that will prevent them from entering in the future as well as remove them humanely in the present.

Next time you see an opossum, impress your friends with your knowledge and understanding of it!

Opossum in a Garage
Opossum in a Garage

Author Bio: Lysi Newman

Lysi Newman is a wildlife enthusiast currently studying at UC Davis and encouraging live trapping as opposed to extermination. She is a veterinary hopeful and has worked in many settings including animal control, zoos, shelters, farms, hospitals, and research.

 

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