Opossums (often called simply “possums”) are small- to medium-sized mammals in the genus Didelphis. The only member native to Oregon and Washington (Or anywhere in North America, for that matter) is the Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginian opossum.
If there were an award for the oddest-looking animal in North America, the opossum would certainly be a candidate. They have narrow heads, long snouts like canines, round ears, semi-prehensile, rat-like tails, and hind feet with opposable thumbs. Their coloration is primarily white — the word opossum is derived from the Algonquian word apasum, which simply means “white animal” — but considerable variation exists.
Most notably, though, female opossums have a marsupium, or pouch, in which their young complete their development after birth. This makes them the only specie of marsupial native to North America. And native they are: Biologists estimate that the opossum hasn’t changed much since at least the Cretaceous period, more than 66 million years ago. Nor have they needed to. They already have an impressive set of survival advantages including:
- Excellent climbing and swimming abilities.
- Excellent senses of smell and hearing.
- Rapid reproductive capability.
- Opposable thumbs on hind feet.
- A beautiful assortment of 50 teeth, which allows them to eat pretty much anything.
- Prehensile tails, which they use as a fifth limb when climbing, not for swinging from branches.
- Unaffected by snake venom, and immune to most diseases.
Opossums are as interesting behaviorally as they are biologically. They’re extremely adaptable, for example. Although arboreal by nature, opossums are also happy to live on the ground. They will eat pretty much anything without complaint. They’re happy living in cities, suburbs, or wild forest. And although solitary by nature, they will sometimes den together.
Despite all these advantages, opossums have very short lifespans. Wild opossums rarely live past two years. They are preyed upon by many other animals, including canines and cats. They also have a high rate of being struck by cars, probably due to their less-than-wonderful vision and their slow, lumbering movement. And just in case they manage not to get eaten or flattened, senescence (growing old) is very rapid in possums.
The most famous opossum behavior is, of course, “playing possum.” This behavior is a lot more interesting than most folks realize, however.
Possums play dead if snarling and hissing don’t scare off an aggressor. Not being fleet of foot, running away is not an option, nor are opossums well-equipped for fighting; so they play dead. But they don’t just lay down and hope for the best. Possums play dead with gusto.
First of all, when an opossum plays dead, they actually go into an altered state of physiology and consciousness. They become stiff, their lips draw back, they drool, the digits of their paws splay out, and their anal glands secrete a foul stench that smells like rotting flesh. Quite often, this display is enough to turn off predators. They poke, prod, and sniff the possum, and then walk away, apparently deciding that they’re not quite hungry enough to eat something that smells that bad.
Possum Trapping and Removal
Possums are basically harmless, and even somewhat beneficial because they do consume a certain amount of rodents and insects. But they do make a mess and create some health risks when they get into garages, basements, under porches, or into attics.
Like all wild animals, opossums carry their share of diseases and parasites, and they do contaminate the places they live with their droppings, urine, shed fur, and parasites. Because of their short lifespans, they also simply die inside a house from time to time, which can really stink the place up.
Possum removal is usually accomplished using traps or snares, or sometimes by visually distracting it with one hand, and then grabbing it at the base of its tail with the other. This is not something you should try yourself. Even professional critter catchers with years of experience sometimes get bitten this way. It’s definitely not something a do-it-yourselfer should try.
Once the opossum is removed and relocated, exclusion usually is necessary. This not only prevents opossums from getting back into your home, but other animals, as well.
If the opossum was living in a burrow, however, then all that’s necessary is to fill it with soil. Opossums don’t have the best work ethic in the animal kingdom, so you don’t have to worry about another possum digging out the burrow and moving in. They’re just not that ambitious.
Please contact us for more information about opossum removal and animal exclusion, or about any of our quality pest and animal control services.