Opossum, not a possum

North America’s only marsupial, opossums can be beneficial to the ecosystem. See more work by local photographer Greg Drawbaugh on Instagram at @gregdrawbaugh.

What is that furry creature shambling by, larger than a cat with a rat’s tail and beady eyes? Some North Oaks residents have crossed paths with opossums lately, so it may be useful to bone up on opossum facts.

• The name “opossum” (aka Didelphidae for those wanting the scientific name) is derived from “aposoum,” a Virginia Algonquian word meaning “white beast.”

• Although commonly referred to interchangeably as opossum or possum, the animal here in North America is correctly spelled “opossum;” the possum is a distinct species primarily found in New Guinea, Australia, Indonesia and other islands in the Pacific region.

• The opossum is North America’s one and only marsupial; this means the animal carries its young in a pouch much like the Australian kangaroo.

• Opossums are excellent tree climbers, aided by sharp claws, which dig into bark, and by a long prehensile (gripping) tail that can be used as an extra limb.

• The phrase “playing possum” is a reference to a defensive mechanism employed by opossums where they play dead or pretend to be asleep when threatened.

• These nocturnal mammals are omnivores, so they’ll eat everything from insects, grass and fruit to mice, birds and snakes to roadkill and the contents of garbage bins. Opossums also groom themselves by eating any nasty hitchhikers, so ticks are also on the menu. A single opossum might eat as many as 4,000 ticks a week!

Since these critters do such a great job eating ticks and other garden pests, North Oaks folks should be happy to catch a glimpse of an opossum.

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