Opossum Talk

Published on February 8, 2013 by Amy

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Opossum Talk
Opossum Talk

The name ‘opossum’ was first adopted in western culture by Captain John Smith (of ‘Pocahontas’ fame) in 1608. It is based on the Algonquin name of the animal, ‘apasum’, meaning ‘white animal’. The spelling has undergone a few changes over the years (opassom, ouassom, opussum, apossumes, ospason, opuson, oppassum, apossum) with the current spelling being settled upon in 1787.

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John Smith’s description of the opossum is certainly not the first, but it is the best-known and most quoted early description (1608).

“An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young.”

One of the most unusual mammals that can be encountered along the river is Didelphis virginiana, the Virginia opossum (sometimes called the American opossum). This is North America’s only representative of the order Marsupialia, the marsupial mammals, so called because of the external abdominal pouch called the marsupium within which the young develop. These are ancient animals with fossil remains known from 70 million years ago. This means relatives of the opossum in your backyard roamed the Earth with the great dinosaurs! Today Marsupials mainly occur in Australia (kangaroos, wallabies, etc.), and many people don’t realize that we have a marsupial mammal here in New England, the shy and unassuming ‘possum.

Opossums are covered with short silvery fur interspersed with longer course white-tipped hairs. Each foot has five toes equipped with a sharp claw except for the inner toe of the hind foot which has no claw and is opposable like the human thumb. This greatly aids the animal in climbing trees, a major part of its lot in life. The tail is bare and prehensile, allowing the possum to stabilize itself in the tree branches, though they do not swing from their tails like monkeys. Generally shy and slow moving, the opossum relies on stealth and a nocturnal lifestyle to avoid danger. When an opossum does find itself in danger it is not (quite) defenseless.

Opossums have large mouths which contain a number of sharp jagged teeth. (These look more dangerous than they are but no wild animal should be handled in any event.) In response to a threat however, an opossum is more likely to resort to a different tactic than biting, they pretend to be dead. This is actually quite comical to see, the animal will open its mouth and loll out it’s tongue, looking for all the world like it is actually dead. Since many predators will only eat live prey this tactic of “playing possum” must be moderately successful.

Opossums will often live in hollow trees, bedding down during the day in dry leaves and debris and venturing out at night to hunt for food. They will eat a wide variety of things, insects, eggs and corn being among their favorites. They have also been accused of stealing chickens.

Source: turtletrack

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