While many North American residents see possums as overgrown rats, I argue that this opinion is an insult to these uniquely beautiful creatures. Most know the United States’ only marsupial for its ability to play dead in the presence of predators or, say, an incoming motor vehicle. However, their dramatics should not be held against them, as possums unfortunately cannot control when they play dead, as it is an involuntary stress response. Imagine if you dropped to the floor every time you had a pop quiz!
Possums provide a number of invaluable ecosystem services, and should be praised for their work. They are rife with wonderful qualities — in addition to their macabre evasive maneuvers, they emit a foul odor to further deter predators. The fatal facsimile is complete with 4-D effects.
Possums release these odorous compounds through glands in a variety of situations to communicate to mates, their young, predators and other threats. They also hiss and make clicking sounds to communicate — just like my roommate.
As an additional advantage against predators, they are immune to most snake venom in their range, except for the coral snake. Scientists have been studying the protein that binds and neutralizes the toxins. This protein has allowed possums to add snakes to their diet.
Another welcome addition to their diet are ticks. Possums eat more than 90% of the ticks that attach to them and eat more than 5,000 in a single season. Their immune system is also highly resistant to Lyme disease, so they are less likely than most mammals to contract and spread the disease.
These wonderful little guys are marsupials, which are mammals that carry their underdeveloped young in pouches. Marsupials have a lower body temperature than placental mammals, which make up the vast majority of mammals in North America. This lower body temperature is often not suitable for the rabies virus, so they very rarely carry or transmit rabies — unlike my roommate.
For years the reproductive systems of possums were mind-boggling to European colonizers. Female possums have two uteri and two vaginal tracts, and the male has a forked penis. These systems are typical of marsupials, but since they are the only marsupial north of Mexico this was quite strange to the colonizers. The unique genitalia of the possum led many to conclude that male possums impregnated the females through their nose. Gross!
Like other marsupials, possums are pouch-bearing mammals. When they are born, possums are about the size of honeybees, but they have very muscular front legs to crawl into their mother’s pouch. They stay in the pouch for about two months, and afterwards they ride on their mother’s back or stay in the den until they are fully weaned.
Now, to settle the debate once and for all: Possum and opossum when used to refer to the Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana, are both correct terms and recognized by Merriam Webster. However, in Australia, a possum refers to a completely different animal that shares few similarities with the Virginia opossum, and is way, way cuter.
In summation: possums are immune to (most) snake venom. They rarely get rabies. They eat ticks. They have a signature smell and are wonderful actors. They are important to their ecosystems and do a great deal of good, and, above all, I just think they’re neat.