To start with, opossums can be compared to a kangaroo or koala, as the mothers of this type of animal have a pouch to carry their young. Opossums are also known to have long and sharp claws. But, where do they use it? Could this be used to attack their enemies or something beneficial to their living?
Are opossums tree climbers? Opossums can climb trees, and they are very good at it. These critters have opposable toes (thumbs) on their back feet that help them hold into small tree branches. Also, their footpads have friction ridges that help them provide a better grip during their tree-climbing adventure.
But that’s not all. Opossums have other interesting characteristics that you will rarely see in other animals. By the way, don’t mistake them with the possums in Australia and New Zealand. Both of them are marsupials, but they are two different animals. Also, ‘opossum’ is pronounced as ‘possum’ or with silent ‘o’.
What Are Opossums?
Opossums, with a scientific name, “Didelphis virginiana,” are mammals known in the US as Virginia opossums. They are the only marsupials in North America or animals in which females carry their young on the pouch on their stomach.
The opossums can “play dead” (or play possum) once they are cornered and threatened. In doing so, predators will think that they are dead, and they will leave. As an additional self-defense tactic, these cute creatures will also hiss and bare their 50 teeth. But afterward, they will turn away.
What Do Opossums Look Like?
An adult opossum is usually 2 – 3 feet long, including its tail. Females usually weigh 3.6 kg (8 lb) while males can weigh 5.4 – 6.9 kg (12 – 15 lb). They have a conical head, thin, hairless ears, pointed face, coarse grayish white fur, and a tapered, prehensile tail. Their legs are short and black to blackish brown.
Are Opossums Good to Have Around?
Opossums are opportunistic omnivores, which means they are not picky eaters, and they eat whatever is available to them. They eat small mammals, birds, fish, fruits, fruit seeds, vegetables, grains, grass, as well as the flesh of decaying animals. No wonder you can also see them scavenging in garbage cans.
Interestingly, opossums also eat pests such as worms, cockroaches, slugs, snails, mosquitoes, rats, and mice. Just like house cats, these scavengers love to groom themselves all the time. This is why they can kill thousands of ticks per season. And because of this, many people consider them good to have around.
Why Are Opossums a Problem?
Despite being truly beneficial to backyards and gardens, opossums also bring problems to humans and pets. They might lessen the number of fleas, lice, and ticks; however, there’s still a high possibility to bring them to your pets. These external parasites can go to your cat and dog, and your pets can bring them inside your house.
Nevertheless, the bigger problem that opossums bring is through their poop. Opossum feces carry bacterial diseases that can harm humans and pets as well. This includes Leptospirosis, Salmonella, Tularaemia, and Coccidiosis. These diseases can be transmitted through contact with contaminated soil and water.
Opossums’ poop can also carry Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), a neurologic disease common to horses and affects their brain and spinal cord functions. Just like other diseases, horses can get EPM once they make contact with anything that has been contaminated with opossum feces.
Can an Opossum Climb a Tree and a Fence?
An opossum can easily climb a tree, and they are also good at climbing fences. In fact, they can climb on anything that their long and sharp claws can hold on to. They have opposable toes (thumbs) on the back of their feet that are useful for holding twigs, and they have footpads that have friction ridges to a firm grip wherever they want to hold. However, they cannot climb on pipes, metal or aluminum sheets, sheer walls, and other solid and smooth surfaces.
Why Do Opossums Climb Tall Trees?
There are four reasons why opossums climb tall trees:
- They climb trees to escape from predators such as dogs.
- These critters seem to be always hungry, so they climb trees to search for food such as fruits.
- They love to rest on branches.
- The opossums may be looking for dens to stay at.
Can Opossums Jump From a Tree to a House Roof or Another Tree?
But while opossums are excellent climbers, they are poor when it comes to jumping. In fact, they can only jump up to 1 meter high. Therefore, these pest eaters can jump from a tree to a house roof or another tree if the distance is less than one meter and if the destination is lower than the point of origin.
Do Opossums Live in Trees?
Opossums don’t live in trees. They only love to climb them. Instead, opossums live among humans. This is why you can see them in basements, attics, and any dry and safe place inside the house. These superb climbers also love to live in woodpiles, hollow stumps, and burrows dug by other mammals.
Contrary to what many people think, opossums don’t sleep in trees upside down. Well, opossums have a prehensile tail that helps them climb trees and hold branches. However, adult opossums cannot hang themselves on tree branches using their tails simply because their tails cannot handle their body weight.
Do Opossums Eat Trees?
Opossums don’t eat trees. However, they eat fruits, flowers, and leaves, and therefore, they are slowly killing the trees. They also defoliate the upper part of growing plants and raid fruit tree crops. But in most cases, these critters are lazy. So instead of climbing a tree to get the fruit, they wait for the fruits to fall.
Do Baby Opossums Hang on Trees?
Baby opossums hang on trees. But instead of using their feet, they use their tail to hang on tree branches upside down. Also called joey (just like a baby kangaroo), a baby opossum wraps its tail around the tree limbs and hang because its bodies are still lightweight. Amazingly, their tail can also carry objects.
Do Opossums Give Birth in Trees?
Opossums don’t give birth in trees. Instead, females give birth in their den or where they currently live. Opossum pregnancies last for 11 – 13 days only. A joey will stay on its mother’s pouch for the first 50 days and the next 50 days on its mother’s back. Once a joey is about 100 days old, it will now live independently.
Here is a video of an opossum carrying baby opossums at her back:
Where Do Opossums Build Their Nests?
For the record, opossums don’t build nests simply because they don’t have the skills. Instead, they search for places where other animals, such as raccoons, have already lived. In most cases, they nest in man-made structures such as attics and basements. They usually stay in a certain place for 2 – 3 days only.
Opossums don’t have thick fur to protect their bodies from the cold weather and are also prone to frostbite. So during the winter, they pick up dry leaves using their tail and bring them to their nest. Opossums don’t hibernate in the winter, and they don’t store up food. Therefore, their fat reserves help them to feel warm.
What Trees Attract Opossums?
Opossums are attracted to almost all kinds of fruit-bearing trees. As mentioned earlier, they are not picky eaters, and they eat almost anything, even garbage and dead animals. Also, they prefer to stay on hollowed trees or the ground. But when it comes to scent, opossums are often attracted to the smell of cinnamon.
Where Do Opossums Live During the Day?
In general, opossums are nocturnal animals, which is why they are most active at night. During the daytime, they sleep in a hollowed log or tree, an abandoned animal burrow beneath a tree, rock piles, and other isolated areas. Opossums prefer to be alone. In fact, females and males only meet during mating season.
Do Opossums Make Good Pets?
Opossums don’t make good pets. Here are some reasons:
- They are wild animals, so they belong to the wild, not inside a cage or to a home. In fact, most regions will require you to secure a permit before you will be allowed to pet one. You should also have the right knowledge, experience, and finances to provide its needs.
- Opossums also need a special kind of diet, especially that they love to eat anything that’s in front of them. It can be more challenging for you if you have other pets such as cats and dogs.
- The opossums in captivity should adjust to the unfamiliar environment. If not treated properly, they may get sick and die.
- The immune system of opossums in captivity is usually poorer than those living in the wild. They lack exercise and are more prone to bacterial diseases, which may cause them to have a shorter life span.
- Opossums carry various diseases, which were mentioned earlier.
Opossums are beneficial and pests at the same time. And because they are more active at night, they can easily enter your house through pet doors. They can also use their climbing skills to go to your attic and chimney. Therefore, understanding their behavior will help you a lot in planning how to avoid them.
List of Sources
Baldwin, R. (2015). How to Manage Pests in Gardens and Landscapes – Opossums. University of California.
Opossums (Didelphis Virginianus). Washington Fish and Wildlife.
Problems with Opossums. (2018). Department of Energy and Environmental Protection – Connecticut.