Virginia opossum facts, pictures, video and information. Not all marsupials live in Australia; around 100 species are found in the Americas, and it is thought that it was here that the first marsupials appeared. Let’s meet the Virginia opossum, the only marsupial found in the USA and Canada …
Virginia Opossum Quick Facts
- Other Name(s): North American opossum
- Scientific name: Didelphis virginiana
- Type of Animal: Mammal (Marsupial)
- Animal Family: Didelphidae
- Where Found: North America
- Head-Body Length: 35 to 94cm (13 to 37in)
- Tail Length: 21.6 to 47.0cm (8.5 to 19in)
- Weight: Male 0.8 to 6.4kg (1.7 to 14lb); female 0.3 to 3.7kg (0.7 to 8.2lb)
- Conservation Status: Least Concern
Meet The Virginia Opossum: Introduction
The Virginia opossum is the only marsupial that occurs naturally in the United States and Canada. It was the first animal to be called ‘opossum’ – the possums of Australia derive their name from their likeness to the Virginia opossum.
- Find out more about marsupials here: Types of Mammal
What Does The Virginia Opossum Look Like?
The Virginia opossum has a thick body, short legs and a long prehensile tail that it uses to grasp and carry small objects – it can even briefly hang by its tail. Its muzzle is long and pointed, and in its mouth are 50 teeth; more than any other land animal in North America.
The Virginia opossum is unusual in that it has a clawless, opposable ‘thumb’ on each of its rear feet. If you find animal tracks which have four clawed toes pointing forwards and a fifth, clawless inside toe pointing inwards or even slightly backwards, then you’ll know a Virginia opossum has been past! Its front feet have five clawed toes.
The face of the Virginia opossum is white, while the rest of its fur varies in color from grayish to shades of brown, red and black. The tail, ears and toes are hairless.
An adult Virginia opossum reaches roughly the size of a domestic cat. However, adult size varies greatly: males tend to be larger than females, northern specimens outgrow those in the tropics and the Virginia opossums living near urban areas tend to be heavier than their rural counterparts.
Virginia Opossum Video
You can see what the Virginia opossum looks like in the video below:
The South American ancestors of the Virginia opossum moved to North America about 3 million years ago. Today the Virginia opossum’s range covers Central America from Costa Rica to Mexico and several parts of the United States. It is also found in southern Canada.
In the United States the Virginia opossum is found east of the Rocky Mountains and in Canada in southwestern Ontario. There are also introduced populations along the West Coast of the United States and in British Colombia, Canada. The species appears to be spreading further north.
The Virginia opossum can be found in a wide variety of habitats from forests and open woodland to marshes and farmland. It can tolerate relatively arid environments but prefers wetter areas such as thickets and woods near streams and swamps. The Virginia opossum is also a common sight in suburban environments.
The Virginia opossum is a solitary, nocturnal animal that is active between dusk and dawn. It uses abandoned burrows, hollow logs, tree cavities, woodpiles and buildings for shelter during the day, moving from one denning site to another frequently.
The Virginia opossum doesn’t hibernate in winter, but will seek shelter during extremely cold weather to avoid frostbite to the hairless parts of its body.
The Virginia opossum is a competent climber and swimmer and can reach a running speed of 4.6 mph (7.4 km/h).
Virginia Opossum Facts: Feigning death
The Virginia possum is well-known for playing dead when it is threatened. The species’ behavior gave rise to the phrase ‘playing possum’.
A threatened Virginia opossum typically reacts to danger by baring its teeth and growling, but under extreme stress it may fall into an involuntary coma-like state.
While feigning death, the animal lies stiff and motionless. Its heart rate and breathing slow down, its tongue hangs out of its open, heavily drooling mouth and a foul-smelling greenish fluid is produced by its anal glands. It can stay in this state for up to 6 hours. The behavior is more common in young opossums.
Virginia opossums use both vocal and scent signals to communicate with each other.
Females communicate with their young by producing various sounds from lip smacking to bird-like noises, while a series of ‘clicks’ is used by mothers as well as individuals communicating with a mate. During an aggressive encounter, opossums may hiss, growl or screech.
Males have scent glands that produce a musky odor just before the mating season, while female scent glands guide newborn young towards the pouch.
The breeding season of the Virginia opossum falls between December and October, and the majority of young are born between February and June.
At birth, the young are comparable in size to a navy bean: they’re about 14mm long and weigh between 0.13 and 0.2g. Many of the newborn fail to find their mother’s pouch or to latch on to one of her 13 nipples. The nipple expands when the baby opossum begins to feed, effectively attaching the newborn to its mother.
The females have from 1 to 3 litters per year, each consisting of up to 30 young. On average, 8 to 9 young survive in the pouch, where they stay attached for about 2 months.
After they leave the pouch, the young will either climb onto their mother’s back or stay behind in a den while she forages. At 4 or 5 months of age, the young opossums are ready to strike out on their own.
What Do Virginia Opossums Eat?
The Virginia opossum is an omnivore (i.e. it eats both plants and meat) that eats a wide variety of foods. Its diet includes grasses, leaves, grains, seeds and fruits, together with animals such as insects, earthworms, snails and other small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. In suburban environments Virginia opossums will also eat pet food and garbage.
The Virginia opossum has many predators, including coyotes, red foxes, raccoons, bobcats, domestic dogs, owls and large snakes.
Is The Virginia Opossum Endangered?
The Virginia opossum is rated as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN.
Despite a fairly short lifespan of 1.5 to 2 years and a high mortality rate, the species is common and widespread throughout its range.
Human impact on their numbers seems to be small, and the species generally thrives near human settlements. Most deaths related to human activity are caused by collisions with vehicles on roads.
Virginia Opossum Facts: Conclusion
We hope that you have enjoyed finding out about the Virginia opossum. Check out the related articles and discover more about the animal kingdom!