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What is an Opossum?

opossumsThere are more than 60 different species of opossum, which are often called possums. The most notable is the Virginia opossum or common opossum—the only marsupial (pouched mammal) found in the United States and Canada.

A female opossum gives birth to helpless young as tiny as honeybees. Babies immediately crawl into the mother's pouch, where they continue to develop. As they get larger, they will go in and out of the pouch and sometimes ride on the mother's back as she hunts for food. Opossums may give birth to as many as 20 babies in a litter, but fewer than half of them survive. Some never even make it as far as the pouch.

Opossums are scavengers, and they often visit human homes or settlements to raid garbage cans, dumpsters, and other containers. They are attracted to carrion and can often be spotted near roadkill. Opossums also eat grass, nuts, and fruit. They will hunt mice, birds, insects, worms, snakes, and even chickens.

These animals are most famous for "playing possum." When threatened by dogs, foxes, or bobcats, opossums sometimes flop onto their sides and lie on the ground with their eyes closed or staring fixedly into space. They extend their tongues and generally appear to be dead. This ploy may put a predator off its guard and allow the opossum an opportunity to make its escape.

Opossums are excellent tree climbers and spend much of their time aloft. They are aided in this by sharp claws, which dig into bark, and by a long prehensile (gripping) tail that can be used as an extra limb. Opossums nest in tree holes or in dens made by other animals.

These animals are widespread and are sometimes hunted as food, particularly in the southern United States.

Adult opossum that are injured can be placed in a box or pet carrier by grabbing the base of the tail while wearing heavy leather gloves. Avoid the head and mouth. Opossums are not typically aggressive. You can also use a shovel to gently scoop the animal into a box for transport.

If an opossum is killed, check the pouch. If there are babies in the pouch attached to the nipples, do not try to detach them. Bring the dead mom with the babies attached to a wildlife rehabilitator; Wildlife Rehabilitation & Release, (530) 432-5522. Baby opossums swallow the nipple to help them stay in the pouch, so they are difficult to remove. If the babies are not attached, place them in a ventilated, towel-lined box with a hot-water bottle for warmth and bring them to a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible; Wildlife Rehabilitation & Release, (530) 432-5522

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