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CRITTER SPOTLIGHT: North American or Virginia Opossum: Didelphis virginiana

Good Morning Watershed Explorers,

Happy cold, beautiful Sunday! I hope that you will bundle up and find a way to get outside and enjoy this spectacular sunny day.

Today's critter spotlight is thanks to Mrs. Heon's class at Agnes Little in Pawtucket. They are reading Appleblossom the Possum and asked if I would write a critter spotlight on the possum. Scientifically speaking, we do not have any possums in the United States. The critter we have come to know as the possum is actually an opossum. Possums are native to Australia and are much smaller than the opossums we have here. Check out the picture below and compare it to the one above. Possums and opossums are very different.

These two creatures are both marsupials, which means that they carry their babies in a pouch, however, Australian possums are more closely related to kangaroos. North American opossum are much larger than Australian possums, males can weigh up to 14 pounds and females weigh up to 8 pounds. North American opossums have a very short lifespan of only 2 years in the wild and about 4 in captivity. They typically breed twice a year and can have up to 20 babies at a time. Females only carry the young inside their bodies for 13 days. When babies are exported in the pouch, they are only the size of a honeybee. They stay in the pouch for about 4 months, eating and growing. Once they leave the pouch, they have no continued parental care.

Opossums are omnivores and will eat just about anything they can find. They will eat other mammals, amphibians, insects, plants, and if necessary even carrion (dead animals). It is because of their eating habits that opossums are both friends and foes to the environment. They are excellent seed dispersers and help to disperse undamaged seeds to other growing locations, however, they are also known carriers of over 24 internal and 13 external parasites.

The North American opossum can live in a variety of habitats. They prefer areas that are close to water such as swamps and wetlands. They will also find shelter in woodlands and thickets, and have adapted well to human altered environments and urban areas. Their small bodies, and nocturnal nature have made them successful in living in these various habitats.

The opossum has two really cool creature adaptations a prehensile tail and an opposable thumb. These come in really handy when climbing trees. Prehensile means able to grasp. The opossum's tail can help it to grab and hold onto branches or other objects just like an extra hand! An opposable thumb is just like your thumb. It allows the thumb to move independently of the other fingers also allowing for a grasping motion. Aren't opossums outstanding?

I hope that you enjoyed learning about the North American or Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana. If there is a critter that you are interested in learning about, please let me know and I will feature it in a future post. You can always email me at

Happy Exploring Watershed Scientists,

Mrs. Morissette

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