Good morning! The possum family (15 plus mother) is on its way to church.
Fun possum facts!
- The species name is Didephis virginiana, and it’s the only marsupial in North American north of Mexico. (Do you know which marsupials inhabit Mexico? Answer here.)
- It “plays possum.” As Wikipedia notes:
The Virginia opossum is noted for reacting to threats by feigning death. This is the genesis of the term “playing possum”, which means pretending to be dead or injured with intent to deceive. In the case of the opossum, the reaction seems to be involuntary, and to be triggered by extreme fear. It should not be taken as an indication of docility, for under serious threat, an opossum will respond ferociously, hissing, screeching, and showing its teeth. But with enough stimulation, the opossum will enter a near coma, which can last up to four hours. It lies on its side, mouth and eyes open, tongue hanging out, emitting a green fluid from its anus whose putrid odor repels predators. Besides discouraging animals that eat live prey, playing possum also convinces some large animals that the opossum is no threat to their young.
- As you see above, they are prolific breeders. As NatureWorks notes:
An Virginia opossum female may have as many as 25 babies, but she usually will have between seven to eight. The reason opossums have so many babies to insure that some of them survive. Like most marsupials, opossums are very small when they are born – about the size of a navy bean.
The babies climb up the mother’s fur and into her pouch where they find a teat. Some babies will not find their way to the pouch and will die. If they make it to the pouch, only babies who find one of the thirteen teats will survive. They will stay in the pouch and suckle for 55-60 days. Then they will move out of the pouch and spend another four to six weeks on their mother’s back. In some parts of their range, females will have three litters a year.
That’s a theoretical maximum of 75 babies born per year, but the real maximum surviving is 39.
- They have short life spans: only 1.5-2 years in the wild, up to four in captivity. That’s unusually short for a cat-sized mammal. One theory suggests that this is due to the high mortality rate of adults; there is high predation (“Virginia opossums may be predated upon by a variety of species including owls, domestic dogs, coyotes, red foxes, raccoons, bobcats and large snakes, among others”) and many die in the winter. Evolutionarily speaking, if you suffer high mortality when you’re reproductive, a good strategy is to pump out as many babies as possible. Even if that saps your strength and itself reduces your longevity, you were going to die of something else anyway. If possums suffered less predation, they’d probably live longer. Indeed, as Wikipedia reports “. . one population on Sapelo Island, five miles off the coast of Georgia, which has been isolated for up to thousands of years without natural predators, was found by Dr. Steven Austad to have evolved life spans up to 50% longer than those of mainland populations.” Now we don’t know if this is an evolved genetic difference, but if they were tested in captivity along with mainland possums, it would suggest that. One would also predict that the Sapelo Island possums would have fewer offspring than their mainland conspecifics.
Here’s a possum playing dead (but they are not, as the photographer says, “hideous”):