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Opossum - Strange Animals
2174    Dibyendu Banerjee    25/07/2020

The opossum is the largest order of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere that carries their babies in a pouch after they are born. While opossums are commonly called possums, they are two very different arboreal marsupial families. Possums include several species of nocturnal and tree-dwelling marsupials native to Australia and New Guinea and the word comes from the Algonquin name ‘aposoum’ which stands for white beast.

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Known simply as possum, the Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial native to North America and they originally lived only in the southeastern United States and Central America. However, they are not native to the western United States. They were introduced to the West in 1890 and currently have established populations along the West Coast from British Columbia to San Diego.

Opossum

While most of the opossums are small-to medium-sized, pouched mammals with pointed snouts and nearly hairless tails, the Virginia opossums are about the size of housecats. Although their fur generally appears grayish, they can also be black, cinnamon and even albino. They are white faced with long pointy snout with a pink lip, round dark eyes, hairless ears and a long, hairless tail spanning over 1/3 of its total body length. With their short legs they walk slowly and in a curiously hobbling way. However, they are able climbers and often use their flexible tails for balance or to hold nesting material when climbing, while the puppies use their tails to cling to their mothers’ backs.

Opossum

Opossums are very primitive mammals that have been around since the time of the dinosaurs and have changed little since then. Naturally, they are wildly adaptable and able to live among humans in open country as well as urban areas.

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However, they prefer to live in forests or swamps that get plenty of rainfall. Though they are not very much particular about where they hang out, opossums love trees and will stay aloft in trees as much as possible. When not lodging in tree holes, they den up in rock crevices, underbrush piles, in burrows or spaces under structures built by people.

Opossum

Opossums are immune to bee stings, snake bites and other toxins. They are rarely aggressive and their open mouth to show their teeth and defensive hissing at human is just a show off and merely a bluff to look vicious. As and when threatened by foxes, dogs or any other predators, they play dead, as they lie on the ground, remain still with their tongue hanging out and eyes closed or staring fixedly into space. Sometimes, the dramatic action works and gives them an opportunity to escape by cheating the enemy. However, the action is completely involuntary and automatic physiological response to danger.  

Opossum
Playing dead

Virginia opossums are nocturnal and their eyes are well-adapted to darkness. They are omnivores and in the warmer months they roam around at night in search of all types of bugs and insects, along with cockroaches, snails, mice and rats, as well as nuts, grass and fruits. They are also known for scavenging though trash. They are not true hibernators and except for brief periods during severe weather, they remain active throughout the winter.

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The opossums are solitary by nature and they avoid one another except during the breeding season in late winter. They mate from mid-winter to mid-summer, and immediately after mating, the male, called a jack, leaves the female and does not come back. The female opossums, called jills, give birth to up to 20 live young at a time, after a gestation of just 12 to 13 days. The newborns, called joeys, are grossly underdeveloped, blind, almost transparent and slightly smaller than a honeybee. After birth, they climb into the mother’s pouch and attach themselves to one of 13 teats arranged in a horseshoe configuration. If there are more than 13 babies, one is destined to die. The nipples swells, as the babies take them in their mouth, making them virtually irremovable. This vital connection between the mother and the baby remains unbroken for about two months. After two months, when the eyes of the joeys open, they begin to spend time out of the pouch. They become fully independent at about three months. Unfortunately, most of the joeys do not survive.

The possums become sexually mature at six to eight months after their birth and live for one to two years.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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