Virginia Opossum

This is the only marsupial found in North America, and represents one of the oldest surviving mammalian groups, whose ancestry dates back 70 million years.

Once the young Virginia opossums leave the safety of their mother's pouch, they will still be carried by her for up to eight weeks. If threatened, opossums can growl and bare their teeth menacingly, but in reality there is little that they can do to defend themselves. The Virginia opossums may be able to deter an attack by pretending to be dead - cats in particular lose interest in dead prey. This behaviour is reflected in the phrase "playing possum".

By night, the Virginia opossums hunt for food. They are good climbers, using their prehensile tails to cling to branches. In the very coldest parts of their range, these marsupials sometimes suffer frostbite on their naked tails. Their bodies are covered in shaggy coats of long hairs, but their tails are almost naked.

Distribution: Widely distributed in North America, from British Columbia in Canada, through the USA east of the Rocky Mountains and along the west coast, into Mexico.

Habitat: Moist woodlands or thick brush in swamps.

Weight: 1 - 2 kg (2 - 4 lb).

Length: 55 - 65 cm (22 - 26 in), induding tail.

Maturity: By 1 year.

Gestation Period: 13 days; young stay in their mother's pouch for 1 - 2 months.

Breeding: 6 - 25, but mortality is higher in bigger litters; weaning occurs from 3 months.

Food: Omnivorous, eating rodents, eggs, carrion, invertebrates, plant matter and fruit.

Lifespan: 2 - 4 years.

Status: Lower risk.

Fur

The fur varies in colour from shades of grey through to black.

Tail

This is prehensile, meaning that the opossum can use it to support itself off the ground.

Facial features

Virginia opossums have a narrow snout, with a pink nose and prominent whiskers.

Teeth

There is a formidable array of some 50 small, sharp teeth in the mouth.

POSTURE

Virginia opossums can walk on all fours along a branch, and then sit up and support themselves on their hindquarters.

A convincing impression of being dead can save an opossum's life.

Gallery of Virginia Opossum