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Oh! Possum: prehistoric and prolific.

Looking out of the window of his country home, our son Bruce noticed something moving on the opposite side of the road. Through the pouring rain it seemed to be some kind of animal. As he went to inspect it, he found six very wet, shivering opossums clinging to their dead mother. She had been hit by a car but the babies though weak, were still alive.

It is likely that the mother opossum was looking for worms on the road and failed to notice when a car came in sight. Like so many opossums, she met her end on the road. Yet the opossum thrives due to being able to adapt, and eat almost anything, including carrion. A prehistoric mammal with a minuscule brain, it has outlasted much smarter animals now extinct.

The opossums Bruce found were the Virginia opossums, the common opossum (Didelphis virginiana) found from Canada to Central America. They are about the size of a cat and vary from grayish white fur in the North to nearly black fur in the South. They have beady black eyes, a pointed snout and a long, hairless prehensile tail. Their feet are much like human hands, yet they have sharp claws. The great toe has an opposable nail that can be used for grasping branches. They are North America's only marsupial or pouched animal and the only mammal in the Northern Hemisphere that has 50 teeth.

Up to 14 or 15 wasp-sized baby opossums are born early in the spring. The tiny, pink, young are born naked and blind, still they have to find their way to the mother's pouch, a journey of two to three inches. Here they attach themselves to one of the 13 mammary glands. It's first come first served, surplus young die. They stay in the pouch for about two months, after which they spend another eight or nine weeks clinging to their mother's back. It was during this stage that Bruce found the baby opossums. At that time they were the size of small rats.

As soon as the babies are on their own the female may breed again and produce another litter 12 or 13 days later. They have one of the shortest gestation periods among all mammals, and can produce up to three litters a year. Many of the small animals are killed by predators, including owls and hawks. The opossum's lifespan is two to three years in the wild and five to seven years in captivity.

Their high birth rate and the fact that they will eat almost anything helps them thrive. Not only do they eat worms on the road, but any other roadkill attracts them. The opossum also eats insects, eggs, small mammals fruits and has even been known to eat poisonous snakes. In captivity, bananas area favorite, although first fed the babies milk with an eyedropper, then lettuce, cat food and later dandelions and greens from outside before releasing them.

The opossum usually hunts for its food at night, using its great sense of smell and touch. It has excellent hearing and will look toward any noise, although vision is not important at night.

During the day, the animal sleeps in holes in trees, hollow logs, under stumps and roots. On very cold days it will roll up in its den for several days to sleep. After a few days it has to search for food again. It does not hibernate. During cold spells in the northern area the opossum often will get frostbite on its naked ears and tail. Or worse yet, it will die, since it cannot maintain its body temperature below 19 degrees Fahrenheit. The opossum lives almost anywhere and even has been seen in Central Park in Manhattan. The preferred location is a wooded area.

It is not a social animal and opossums usually avoid each other, except during mating season. When two males meet they can be very aggressive. They hiss and growl and snarl at each other and will snap at their opponent. Sometimes they get injured, yet they have an amazing ability to recover. Some of their enemies are bobcats, foxes, owls, and other carnivores. Of course the opossum is still trapped for its fur which is used as an inexpensive trim on coats, jackets and hats. Although sometimes used as food, the opossum meat is very fatty and oily.

Its 50 teeth, formidable hiss and sharp claws are part of its defense, but a primary means of resisting attack is "playing dead." What really happens is that the opossum becomes paralyzed, goes into a coma and appears to be dead. It is really suffering from shock. When in this state the opossum's tail is rolled up, the eyes and mouth are open and the feet are partially closed. The animal becomes limp. It can actually be moved without reacting.

Feigning death wards off many of the opossums enemies, but they do not seem to have mastered the problem of oncoming cars. Yet the rescued six babies will proliferate and add to the opossum population. Slow-witted they may be -- but opossums will probably survive for another 50 million years.

RELATED ARTICLE: How is a `possum like your brother-in-law?

Imagine a relative who came to visit and never left. Picture a shiftless creature with a minuscule brain, beady eyes, an irascible disposition and a face only a mother could love. No, not your brother-in-law, the opossum.

The second half of its scientific name, Didelphis virginiana, hints at its Southern origins. The `possum was unknown in the Northeast before the last millennium. The first word describes the "doubled womb." It has the distinction of being North America's only animal with a pouch -- if you don't count your brother-in-law's belly.

Some more `possum traits:

* Beds down anywhere. One day, it's a tree cavity, the next a brush pile. Never makes the bed. Kinda like your brother-in-law.

* Roams all night scrounging for food (eats almost anything) and sleeps most of the day.

* When confronted with danger (or asked to pick up its socks), "plays possum" by assuming a catatonic, deathlike state. Recovers quickly -- as soon as the dishes are done.

* Doesn't play well with others, anti-social.

* Prehensile tail can grip a tree branch to hang upside down. Bet your brother-in-law can't do that.
COPYRIGHT 1998 New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
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Title Annotation:includes related article; the common opossum
Author:Freer, Barbara
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Date:Jun 1, 1998
Previous Article:Nature's hardbodies.
Next Article:Long Island: a natural history.

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