Eight reasons to love the amazing opossum

Published 12:34 pm Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Do opossums wander through your yard? Before you freak out, let’s look at why you might want to welcome our marsupial friends.

Just what is a marsupial? They are a unique group of mammals that carry their babies in a pouch on their stomachs. The babies, called joeys, are born underdeveloped and crawl into the pouch to nurse and grow bigger. And the Virginia opossum, the kind we have here in western North Carolina, is the only marsupial in the US. 

Opossums have been around way longer than us, by about 70 million years. But they don’t have the best reputation. I’m not sure why as I think they are super cute. People tend to think they’re ugly, dirty and disease-ridden. But those are just myths! Opossums are part of nature’s clean-up crew, helping control pesky insects, venomous snakes and disease-carrying rodents.

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Opossums hunt and eat snakes, including venomous snakes, reducing the chances you might get bitten. They chow down on rats and mice that can transmit nasty diseases. Plus they eat a lot of insects, including roaches and mosquitoes. 

You may have heard they eat thousands of ticks. As much as I want to believe it, recent studies have completely debunked this myth. Ticks don’t make up a large part of their diet.

We like them on our property because they clean up rotten fruit from trees, animals that may have died, spilled birdseed and yard waste. By chowing down on things that might spread diseases, they help keep our environment clean.

Not only are they mini-exterminators, but opossums are also immune to rabies. Their low body temperature makes it impossible for the rabies virus to survive, making them harmless to humans.

They are shy, non-aggressive animals that want nothing to do with us. When threatened, they have some cool tricks. First, they hiss and show their teeth, trying to scare off predators with their tough-guy act. If that doesn’t work, they might fall over and play dead. Yep, they go all-in on the “playing possum” act, even drooling and letting their tongue hang out, to convince predators they’re no longer a tasty meal. This clever trick often fools predators into leaving them alone.

By the way, when an opossum “plays dead” it’s not a conscious decision, but an automatic response to extreme stress. It’s like their last-ditch effort to avoid being attacked or eaten by a predator. While in this state, opossums are not in control of their actions and might remain motionless for several minutes to a few hours. Interestingly, opossums can “snap out” of this involuntary response once they feel the threat has passed.

Sometimes, they will even make themselves stink by releasing a smelly green fluid from their body. This makes them seem even more disgusting and dead to a predator. Wow, this just makes me love them more! They are cute and smart!

An opossum wandering through your yard is no cause for alarm. They are solitary creatures taking a nighttime stroll in search of their next grubby snack, and there’s no need to attempt to remove them. Consider yourself lucky if one has taken up residence under your deck or in a forgotten corner of the garden. You now have a free vacuum cleaner for your yard.

So embrace your opossum neighbors. They’ve been around for ages, help keep our environment clean and have unique characteristics that make them fascinating. Let’s celebrate these quirky marsupials and appreciate their vital role in our ecosystem. And their clever trick of playing dead demonstrates the incredible diversity of strategies our wildlife have developed to navigate the challenges of the natural world.

The next time you spot an opossum, remember all the reasons to love them (I count at least eight) and give them a friendly nod. They’re one of the many unsung heroes of the wild!

 

Loti Woods is a founder of Champions for Wildlife, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire and empower the next generation, using art & education, to be champions for wildlife. To learn more, visit championsforwildlife.org.