Possums are Resourceful Scavengers
By Les Harrison, Wakulla County Extension Director
The seasonally cooler weather has had a silencing effect on the nighttime chorus of insects, amphibians and most other animals.
The frogs and cicadas are taking shelter in anticipation of the warmer months to come.
With the exception of the barred owls, even much of the avian population has moved on to warmer locales or are silently waiting out the dark hours.
The summer snacks of mosquitoes and moths is not an option during winter evenings.
There are still the terrestrial residents of the forest and fields which remain active during the dim hours. These animals scurry about in near silence on even the coldest evenings Wakulla County can deliver.
Common among the native nocturnal animals is the opossum (Didelphis virginiana). This resourceful scavenger is found in forested areas, fields and pastures, and even places with a high density of humans.
The possum, as it is usually known, has the distinction of being the only native marsupial north of Mexico. More commonly known, but distantly related, marsupials are the kangaroos, wallabies and koalas of Australia.
All the females have a pouch called a marsupium where the juveniles reside after birth. The tiny possums stay there for the next two months developing and growing.
Possums produce one to three litters annually from January to July.
While 20 or more may be born, commonly only about seven survive to emerge from the pouch.
Newborns are about 1/2-inch long and weigh less than 1/10th of an ounce.
After leaving the pouch they often ride on their mother’s back when she goes outside the den.
The prolific possums have relatively short lives, commonly in the three to four year range.
Many have their brief existence cut short when crossing roadways at night.
These animals are not fast enough to easily avoid vehicles which cause many possum fatalities in urban or suburban areas.
While not defenseless, the possum is also a common prey to larger predators such as bobcats, coyotes, and even domestic dogs.
Opossums also have 50 teeth, more than any other North American mammal.
Combined with its prehensile tail and their opposable thumbs, they are able to climb proficiently by grasping branches and other support structures.
Opossums are opportunistic feeders and are not finicky when making a menu selection. They seek out the many different choices readily available including, but not limited to, bird eggs, chickens, moles, earthworms, insects, snakes, grass, fruit, pet food, garbage and carrion (animals which are already dead).
The phrase “playing possum” is applied to anyone feigning unconsciousness or death for the purpose of deception. This tactic in fact originated with these crafty marsupials.
When threatened by a potentially dangerous animal, possums usually hiss and snarl at first. If these defense tactics do not scare off the intruder, they lay down and remain lifeless for several minutes.
Many predators do not eat animals which are not their fresh kills, so the prostrate possum with its mouth agape and appearing lifeless may escape, if its luck holds.
This cat-sized creature may not have nine lives, but at least it is resourceful.