October 2018

Possums, Our North American Marsupials

Print More

Photo by Joan Heffernan

Typically a nocturnal scavenger, this possum was caught foraging in the daytime.

Around this time of year I can’t help but think of times spent in lecture halls back in those college days. One of my favorite professors was a tall drink of water, had Clark Kent glasses, a bald head and wrote in all capital letters on the board. During the honeymoon period I hung on his every word until half way through the semester when I decided to divert my energy towards enticing my dreamy lab partner into my inner circle. My hook was largely a collection of peasant blouses, hoop earrings, and huarache sandals coupled with a nonchalant attitude about schoolwork. I figured that combination screamed casual sophistication and soon we would be inseparable. We would shun the notion of hitting the books after class and replace it with time spent on a quilt in the quad, exactly what my parents had told me not to do. Fast forward and it didn’t turn out exactly as I had pictured, so buckling down seemed like a good distraction from licking my wounds. Fortunately I was back to a somewhat studious version of myself when my professor drew some elaborate, highly branched diagram of the animal kingdom showing how the marsupials branched off from other mammals 90 million years ago. That diagram has stayed with me, and I most definitely have a soft spot in my heart for the marsupials. They live a pouched existence, mostly down under. Decades have passed since my plans were hatched in the lecture hall. But, as luck would have it, our very own marsupial, the beloved opossum, crosses my path on a regular basis bringing me back to my campus days when anything seemed possible.

Now most folks aren’t that smitten with the possum. But there is more than meets the eye with these creatures of the night. The opposum got his name, which roughly means white animal, from the Algonquins. Most possums have a white face and a mostly grey body. They have a long snout which houses 50 teeth, more teeth than any mammal in North America. They put those choppers into action in their omnivorous lifestyle eating insects, worms, ticks, fruit, plants and dead stuff. During the warmer months they lead a nomadic life nodding off in a different spot each day and moving off when the sun goes down. They do not hibernate and stay active for most of the winter. Because they have opposable thumbs on their hind feet for climbing, they make the coolest footprints in the snow looking like stars processing across the snowdrifts. When cornered they can growl or hiss and even play dead, like we have all seen in the cartoons, but they would prefer to be left alone.

But my favorite thing about possums is the fact that they are marsupials. And being a marsupial does have its advantages, including a quick pregnancy of two weeks or so. No time for stretch marks for the possum mama and a fortnight after a hook up with a male in the wee hours, the babies are born. These tiny barely developed babies take their first breath and they find their way to the mother’s pouch where a teat full of milk awaits. They latch on and remain there for two months before venturing out of the pouch and becoming mostly independent. The young possums are called joeys just like their relatives, the kangaroos in Australia. If they play their cards right our possum joeys get to grow up to be independent possums, hanging out near garden sheds and careening across the roads in the wee hours. That sounds almost as inviting as hopping around the outback. 

Comments are closed.