Opossums do hang out

January 16, 2012 • 9:37 pm

by Greg Mayer

(Update below). In comments on an earlier post, it was mentioned that opossums’ having a prehensile tail was a myth. But it isn’t: opossums of several species, have prehensile tails, and use them to hang in trees. Here’s an example.

Wooly opossums, Barro Colorado, Panama, 1928. Field Museum photo

Here’s a closer one, but the branch is out of the picture.

Wooly opossum, Barro Colorado, Panama, 1928. Field Museum photo

And here’s a Virginia opossum.

Virginia opossum. University of Maryland mammalogy.

There are lots of other photos on the web. Try here (the cutest), here, and here. I’d have posted these in the comments on the earlier post, but some quirk of WordPress (or perhaps my understanding of it) allows video but not stills in comments.

UPDATE. Diane G. suggests tail use is more common in juveniles, and that suggestion is born out at least by the relative frequency in images found by Google. The following picture from the 9th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1875-1889) shows juveniles using their tails on their mother.

Caluromys derbianus, Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th ed.

27 thoughts on “Opossums do hang out

    1. Yes, they have great abs. The second ‘here‘ link [not second image] in the post is what looks to be an adult Virginia opossum reaching up to grab its tail to pull itself up.

      1. The second image is a wooly opossum and the 3rd a Virginia opossum — but a very young one.

        The oddest thing about the Virginia opossum, at least to my mind, is that for a fairly large animal they have a very short life span — c. 2 years in the wild apparently, though to 5 or so in captivity. An R strategy to the max! Some insects live longer than that.

  1. I stand corrected! 😀

    Actually, I was only referring to the Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana. I think the moldy factoid I was trying to pull out of the old memory bank should have been that the adults do not hang by their tails, as commonly (at one time, anyway) portrayed in comic strips…

    References point out that adults still use their tail prehensilely, tho, esp. when climbing, as “another limb,” for balance.

    Great fun to look up more about these wonderful animals. There’s another cute picture of a hanging baby here:


    Another cool possum fact: they have opposable thumbs–on their rear feet!

    1. A further cool opossum factoid: they have bifurcate penises (and, naturally, vaginas to go with them).

      And Greg, thanx for posting this – unrelated to the earlier post I’d recently been wondering if they actually did this but hadn’t gotten around to looking it up.

      1. I heard kangaroos (their marsupial kin) have bifurcated penises too.

        What’s going on with their feet? Bifurcated digits?

        I had a possum invasion in my home once. They came in through a dryer vent and were eating cat food. It took me a while to figure out what was going on because I had 2 rescue cats who just had kittens which seemed to explain the huge cat food consumption and little poos I ws finding outside the litter box. (One cat moved her kittens and the other cat’s kittens into a hiding place a few days after birth; they also nursed each other’s kittens!). My son opened a dresser drawer in the Lanai and said, “Mom, there are animals in this drawer.” It was 2 opossums– playing possum! Animal rescue gave me traps that I baited with cat food. Then I caught the critters and let them go in my backyard. There were 6 in all. This was in Southern California.

        1. Great story!

          They are quite happy to come into any building they can. When my husband was a grad student in Texas, he had a baby one that would come into his apartment and hang out under the refrigerator…

          1. I once had a couple of young ones under my kitchen sink in the trash can. When I first saw them I thought they were rats and quickly closed the door. But after a moment I realized what they were and set out to catch them.

            I emptied the trash can so when they went in it, they couldn’t climb out easily.

            I managed to get them into a cat carrier for the night and planned to release them in the morning, far away. Next morning I found only one left in the cage. I have no idea how the one got out–if it got out.

  2. A former coworker from India had never seen a possum before. He came in to work and said “The rats here are as big as cats.”

    Asked him if the “rat” had a huge arched back and walked in jumping fashion. Told him it was a possum.

    Biggest rodent around here is the Nutria or Coypu. They love the drainage ditches and retention ponds

  3. My parents had a hate-relationship with opossums; they lived in the Great Valley in California, had an extensive garden with fruit trees and a grape arbor, and had one heckuva time getting the ‘possums and raccoons to leave some fruit for them!

    I live in the suburban San Francisco Bay Area, and I have a love/hate relationship with the critters. The kits are charming when they chase each other around the yard at night. But the fact that Mom can, and does, tear back the vent screening on the under-house crawlspace to have a warm, dry spot to raise her family is a damned nuisance. Not that I so much mind an opossum family under the house, but where there’s a hole, there will be rats and mice. They’re not so welcome.

    A temporary vet at my regular vet’s office gave my cats their annual shots one day, then offered to show me the baby opossums she was taking care of as a volunteer at the local wild animal shelter. They were so cute! One wrapped his tail around my wrist, and I was enchanted. The vet explained that they’re way too stupid to imprint on human caretakers, and can be returned to the wild as teenagers without difficulty.

    1. Oh, I’d love to have an experience like that!

      (Fostering babies. I have my own problem with the wild ones & my birdfeeders, tho they’re nowhere near as much trouble as the raccoons.)

    2. You need to install bronze marine screen. I used to own a house with crawlspace vents screened with fiberglass. My cats would walk up, take one clawed swipe at the screen, and march through into dry, dusty kitty-poop heaven. Replacing the fiberglass with bronze solved that problem permanently.

      I will not claim the stuff is easy to find, however, but with the web anything is possible.

  4. If a prehensile tail is used for grasping, one naturally wonders what a posthensile tail would be good for.

  5. It always amazes me that of all the possible marsupials, opossums were the only ones to successfully compete with placentals outside of Australia. The tasmanian devil and thylacine couldn’t hack it, but the opossum could?!? If you wound the clock back 60 million years, this would not be the marsupial I would’ve bet on. 🙂

  6. I live in Brooklyn. One evening a couple of years ago, I was in the basement of the apartment building I live in to throw out garbage. I saw a possum skitter behind a garbage can to hide, much to my surprise–I was inside a Brooklyn apartment building. I saw that it was an adolescent, and its tail was around the pail and it couldn’t see the end. While it watched me and my other hand, I reached around the pail and picked it up by the tail. Once I had it, it played dead. I brought it up for my daughter to see before releasing it, and we kept it overnight in a cage we had. Although it did not take to us, and didn’t have much interest in most of the food I tried to give it, it relished some nice fresh smoked salami I got in a local Russian deli.

    The high point was when it grasped my index finger with its tail. It was like a baby’s grasp. The tail circled my finger comfortably, but it was not a strong pressure. It is quite a unique experience to have a possum hold your finger with its prehensile tail. (My daughter named her-or-him Toby.)

  7. Hello! I am the author of Backyard Zoologist, the blog that you linked to in this post. I’ve gotten so much traffic from your website! Thank you for linking to me. I’m also glad, because now I’ve found you. This is a fascinating blog! Cheers!

  8. I must disagree vehemently with your blog post on opossums.

    Opossums are definitely NOT cute, and it’s not even possible for an opossum to be “cutest”.


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