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Species Spotlight: Virginia Opossums

The Virginia Opossum is a unique species found in Orange County, but several misconceptions paint it as a potentially dangerous or dirty creature. Virginia Opossums originate from the eastern U.S., as hinted in their name, but they have naturalized, or integrated into the ecosystem, westward due to their highly adaptable nature. This species should be celebrated and protected for their key roles in the outdoors, such as contributing to disease control in humans and other animals and removing decaying organic matter from the environment.

The Virginia Opossum is hard to come across in the wild, but it is easy to identify. They have dark, rounded ears and black beady eyes that contrast sharply against their white, pointed snout. Their wispy gray and white body ranges from 13 to 22 inches (33 to 56 cm) from their snout to the base of their tail. Their iconic hairless tail is almost as long as their body, at around 11 inches. People often mistake the Virginia Opossum for an unusually large rat, but they are a completely different type of mammal.

The Virginia Opossum. PC David Cappaert

The Virginia Opossum, though sometimes mistaken for rodents like rats, is actually a type of marsupial. Marsupials are a group of mammals characterized by premature birth and the baby's continued development in a mother’s pouch. Some famous examples of marsupials include kangaroos and koalas, though these species are found in the regions of Australia. In fact, Virginia Opossums are the only marsupials found in North America. The mother Virginia Opossum can fit up to 13 babies in its pouch, and when the babies grow older, they can be seen riding along the mother’s back.

A mother Virginia Opossum and her babies. PC Stan Tekiela

Another identifiable feature of the Virginia Opossum is its reserved nocturnal lifestyle. The elusive Virginia Opossum is a nocturnal creature, meaning it is most active during the night. They are very quiet without a distinguishable call, and spend most of the night foraging for food and walking briskly from place to place at speeds up to 4 miles per hour. 

The Virginia Opossum is a nomadic species, meaning it has no permanent home. Individuals utilize common trails to move around, including those made by other wildlife or even roads shared with humans. As they roam, they take shelter in burrows dug by other mammals. However, their habit of also occupying pre-existing man-made spaces, such as woodpiles and garages, often causes conflicts with homeowners.

A Virginia Opossum peeks out from its den. PC Art Dingo

As the Virginia Opossum often lives in close proximity to humans, many worry about the potential dangers or inconveniences that this creature poses. Despite the concerns, the Virginia Opossum is not a threat to livestock or plants but rather serves as nature’s disease control. 

How? They help control pest populations by eating mice, cockroaches, snails, slugs, and other garden pests. Virginia Opossums can eat dangerous snakes with a protein called Lethal Toxin-Neutralizing Factor (LTNF) that detoxifies venom produced by snakes, bees, and scorpions. Virginia Opossums also help slow down the spread of Lyme disease by feeding on ticks. Lyme disease is caused by a bite from a tick infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria and can cause a large rash with flu-like symptoms and joint pain. A single Virginia Opossum can eat up to 5,000 ticks in one season!

The Virginia Opossum also prefers rotting vegetation to fresh food, so they will not threaten garden produce. They also consume carrion, or dead rotting meat, removing harmful bacteria and animal carcasses—including bones—from the environment. Though its diet may not be fresh, the Virginia Opossum constantly self-grooms with its tongue and paws after eating.

A Virginia Opossum snacks on a banana peel. PC Catherine Sherman

A popular myth has it that The Virginia Opossum hangs by its tail from tree branches, but this is untrue. The tail is used as a support system as they venture through the foliage, but the tail alone cannot support their whole body weight. Along with its tail, the Virginia Opossum has an opposable “thumb”, which makes for an interesting track as it can point as much as 90 degrees away from the direction of travel.

The tracks of a Virginia Opossum, showcasing its opposable thumb. PC Mikael Behrens

When a Virginia Opossum feels threatened, it may exhibit signs similar to rabies, like hissing or swaying. However, these behaviors are meant to distract or outsmart potential predators. In reality, Virginia Opossums are extremely resistant to rabies due to their low body temperature, which makes it harder to contract rabies compared to other small mammals.

In response to threats, the Virginia Opossum is also well known for its ability to “play possum,” or feign death. When the Virginia Opossum believes that it cannot run away or fight back, it lies over limply, slows its breath to an undetectable speed, and sticks its tongue out to appear as an unappealing meal. This state may last several minutes to even hours, but it is not a catatonic, or abnormally unresponsive, state as its metabolic processes are still high. The Virginia Opossum will only get back up and run away when it feels safe to move.

It is advised not to directly handle Virginia Opossums, because like any wild animal, there are always certain risks with any diseases or parasites that they may have. People can take protective measures to prevent Virginia Opossums, or any other wildlife, from staying as unwanted guests. People are advised to block possible dens like chimneys, secure trash bins, and keep pets indoors at night or during feeding time. The Virginia Opossum is a fascinating species and a helpful addition to the backyard, but they are wild creatures that thrive without unnecessary contact from humans. It is important to observe and appreciate them on their own so that they can continue to safely clean up our environment.


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