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The awesome opossum

Picture your favorite mammal for me. Some of you might be picturing your dog or cat at home, while some of you may be picturing your favorite zoo mammal, like an elephant, tiger, or panda. Were some of you picturing a human? Hey, we are mammals after all! Next, I want you to think about what makes that specific mammal your favorite. Is it their cute gray and white fur? Is it their long, naked tail? Is it their mouth full of 50 sharp teeth? Wait a minute … I think I might just be describing MY favorite mammal, the Virginia opossum! Did any of you think of an opossum as your favorite mammal like me? No? That is too bad because they are amazing, and I am going to tell you just a few reasons why they are my all-time favorite mammal! (Please don’t show this blog to my dog; he may get jealous.)

To be fair, opossums were not always my favorite mammal either. I honestly never thought much of them, and my knowledge of them was limited to what we all we know, that they play dead. When I was first hired many moons ago, we didn’t have opossums currently in our population, but when our managers told us that we had the opportunity to work with some I thought, “Oh cool, a new species I’ve never worked with before!” And after the first few weeks of caring for our newest opossums, and learning more about them, I fell in love.

Our opossums that live in the U.S. are also known as Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana), and just by their looks, are oh so cute! Opossums have gray and white wiry fur covering most of their bodies, which is softer to the touch than it appears. Their feet, noses, ears, and tails are all hairless, and they have two large, forward facing eyes. They are North America’s only marsupial, so you know what that means, females have a pouch for carrying babies!  They have crazy, long whiskers around their noses, and the pattern on their feet makes them look like they are always wearing the most stylish fingerless gloves. They even have thumbs! Having thumbs on their front feet and even their back feet allows them to climb trees and scoop up leaf litter for their nests with ease. And as humans, we all know how handy our thumbs are!

You’re probably saying, “But they have all those teeth in their mouth. That’s so scary!” That is exactly the point! That beautiful opossum smile is meant to scare you away because they don’t want to be harmed by you! Opossums are more afraid of you than you are of them, trust me. Opossums have 50 sharp teeth in their mouths, which is more teeth than any other mammal in the U.S. If a predator approaches, they’ll open their mouths nice and wide to show those teeth off, hoping to scare that predator away! Which leads into the next reason why opossums are oh so awesome: They play dead! Well, kind of. The “playing dead” is all part of the most elaborate display to scare off predators. After showing off all those teeth, if the predator is still interested in the opossum, they will pass out for up to four hours. Yes, four hours! And if that doesn’t work, the opossum will do the coolest, grossest thing of all: Go to the bathroom on themselves. So not only does the opossum look dead, but now it smells dead and that predator will be thoroughly grossed out enough to leave the opossum alone.

Still not in love with them like I am? Maybe after hearing how they help us humans out, you might change your mind a little. I am sure we can all agree ticks are harmful to a variety of mammal species. We spray on bug spray when we go hiking to avoid them and administer monthly preventions to our dogs and cats to keep them safe. But opossums are their own tick preventative because they eat them! They will let the ticks crawl in their fur, and with a tongue like a cat’s, they will groom themselves of ticks and eat them. Just one opossum can consume upwards of 5,000 ticks in a season! Aside from ticks, they can even consume dead animal and plant matter, doing a little cleanup of the environment! Oh, and did I mention that thanks to a low body temperature, around 90⁰F, they cannot carry or transmit rabies? Woo-hoo!

I hope to have helped some of you appreciate and maybe even love opossums now! If you ever see one hanging around (not literally, because their semi-prehensile tails aren’t that strong) keep your distance so you don’t scare them, but thank them for helping to keep you safe by eating all those ticks!

Emily B.
Keeper II, Ambassador Animals

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl