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Virginia Opossum Fact File

Appearance

The Virginia opossum is covered with fur which is variable in color. Typically it is grey but can be red, brown or black. Their body is covered with long guard hairs that have white tip and a thick undercoat of fur.

The face is long and thin. It colored a pale white in northern populations and dusky brown or black with a white cheek patch in southern populations. They have a pink nose at the pointed tip of the face. They have 50 teeth. Their ears, eyes, a ring around the eyes and the feet are colored black.

A color form exists known as albinotic. This is not a true albino as they do not have the pink eyes and skin. They have white fur but the eyes, eye rings, feet and tail are still brown or black.

The tail is medium in size with no fur and is partly prehensile. It measures between 25 and 54cm (10 and 21.5in) long.

Both the rear and front feet have five toes. Each ends with a sharp claw. This claw is not present on the innermost toe of the hindfoot.

Sticking out from the face are long whiskers which help them to feel where they are going in the dark.

Their body can measure between 33 and 50cm (13-20in) long with their weight varying from 2 to 5.5kg (4.5-12lbs). Males are typically larger than females.

Diet

The Virginia opossum is an omnivore with a highly diverse diet. This may include small mammals, birds, reptile, amphibians, eggs, insects, plants, nuts, seeds and fruit. Their diet is highly variable depending on their habitat and the seasons.


Where they live alongside humans the Virginia opossum has been known to eat trash and visit compost bins or bird feeders to find food. They will also eat cultivated crops such a corn.


Their ability to eat dead animals and ticks means they have an important role in keeping the ecosystem healthy.

Virginia Opossum

Scientific Name

Didelphis virginiana

Conservation Status

Least Concern

Weight

2-5.5kg (4.5-12lbs)

Length

33-50cm (13-20in)

Lifespan

Wild 1.5-2years

Wild Record 3 years

Captive 3-4 years

Captive Record 10yrs

Diet

Omnivorous

Range

Virginia oppossums can be found in the Americas. Here they live in the following countries – Belize, Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and the United States.

In the United States they are native to the east of the rocky mountains. Introduced populations can be found on the west coast and these have now spread in to British Colombia. In some parts of their range the population overlaps with that of the common opossum.

Of the 100 opossum species they are the only one native to North America.

Habitat

They make their home in woodlands and thickets typically near water. They may also inhabit arid and mesic areas. With the expansion of human habitations they can often be found in urban areas.

Virignia opposums will create a den under a stump, in a hollow or log, in rock piles or in a building. They will also take over dens created by other animals such as woodchucks. This den may be lined with shredded leaves.

Virginia Opossum

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Reproduction

The breeding season is variable across their range. In the North breeding occurs from February to August while in southern areas it will run from January to August. At the start of the breeding the season the males scent gland on his chest will become more active. It begins to emit a musky odor and stains their fur.

Females enter their 29.5 day estrus cycle and begin mating as soon as this begins. Males may mate with several females during the breeding season.

In cold regions breeding occurs once per year but in warmer areas they may breed as many as three times in one year.

Following a successful mating the female will give birth to between 4 and 25 young which are the size of a jellybean. Females only have 13 teats and not all of these will function so some of the young do not survive.

As a marsupial the Viriginia opossum raises its young in a pouch. Despite being highly underdeveloped in most regards their strong front legs mean they can walk from the birth canal up to their mothers pouch.

The young which can reach the pouch and are able to secure a teat will drink milk for the next 50-70 days. Once the young leave the pouch the mother will either leave them in the den while she forages or they may ride on her back.

If a female breeds twice in one year the teats will be enlarged by the suckling of the first litter. A projection called the papilla will emerge from them and the young from the second litter attach to this.

Just before 3 months old the young begin to wean and they have moved on to solid food by 105 days old. Young leave the den soon after this and become independent. Mortality of these young could be as much as 60%.

Sexual maturity is reached at 6 months old for females and 8 months old for the males.

Behavior

The Virginia opossum is nocturnal. They emerge at night to feed and most of their active hours are spent looking for food.

They make a range of vocalizations. These include a click that is used to attract a mate and hisses when threatened. Young will sneeze to gain attention from their mother.

Virginia opposums are able climbers and spend much of their time in the trees. This is assisted by the opposable toe which helps them to grip branches. Their prehensile tail allows them to wrap it around branches and hang off of it to get around.

The opossum is a solitary animal. Most times if they meet another opossum it will lead to a fight.

These animals do not hibernate and will be active even during the coldest parts of the year.

virginia opossum

Predators and Threats

They have a number of natural predators including birds of prey such as hawks and owls such as the great horned owl, red foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bobcats and large snakes. Domestic pets such as dogs and cats also pose a threat.

They are immune to the venom of many snakes such as the western diamondback rattlesnake and can survive a bite from them.

To defend against predators they typically play dead as most animals do not eat deceased prey. They can remain like this for up to 4 hours. This is the origin of the phrase ‘playing possum.’ They will also emit a foul odor from their rear.

Humans pose a range of threats including vehicle strike and hunting. Their fur used to be a target as it would fetch a good price but this has now decreased in value.

Quick facts

Opossums live in the Americas while possums can be found in Australia.

Their names come from an Algonquian word ‘apassum’ which translates as ‘white beast.’

Virginia opposums are highly susceptible to frostbite and it is not uncommon for parts of their tail, ears or toes to be missing.

A number of myths surround the Virginia opossum including that they give birth through their nose and that they sleep while hanging by their tail. Both of these are untrue.

The opossum remains unchanged from the time of the dinosaurs and is often called a ‘living fossil.’

The male opossum is known as a ‘jack’ while the female is called a ‘jill.’

Virginia Opossum

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Photo Credits

Top Three

Public Domain. USFWS.

Bottom

By Cody Pope – Wikipedia:User:Cody.pope, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1702717

References

Burnie, D., 2011. Animal. 3rd ed. London: DK


Chesapeakebay.net. 2020. Virginia Opossum | Chesapeake Bay Program. [online] Available at: <https://www.chesapeakebay.net/S=0/fieldguide/critter/virginia_opossum> [Accessed 24 October 2020].

Alfred L. Gardner, Virginia opossum, Encyclopædia Britannica, June 04, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/animal/Virginia-opossum [October 24, 2020].

Nhpbs.org. 2020. Virginia Opossum – Didelphis Virginiana – Natureworks. [online] Available at: <https://nhpbs.org/natureworks/opossum.htm> [Accessed 24 October 2020].

Siciliano Martina, L. 2013. “Didelphis virginiana” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed October 24, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Didelphis_virginiana/

Seaworld.org. 2020. Virginia Opossum Facts And Information | Seaworld Parks & Entertainment. [online] Available at: <https://seaworld.org/animals/facts/mammals/virginia-opossum/> [Accessed 24 October 2020].

Vtfishandwildlife.com. 2020. Virginia Opossum | Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department. [online] Available at: <https://vtfishandwildlife.com/learn-more/vermont-critters/mammals/virginia-opossum> [Accessed 24 October 2020].

Alabama Cooperative Extension System. 2020. The Virginia Opossum: Our Only Native Marsupial – Alabama Cooperative Extension System. [online] Available at: <https://www.aces.edu/blog/topics/wildlife/the-virginia-opossum-our-only-native-marsupial/?cn-reloaded=1> [Accessed 25 October 2020].

Smithsonian’s National Zoo. 2020. Virginia Opossum. [online] Available at: <https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/virginia-opossum> [Accessed 25 October 2020].

Pérez-Hernandez, R., Lew, D. & Solari, S. 2016. Didelphis virginiana. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T40502A22176259. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T40502A22176259.en. Downloaded on 24 October 2020.

San Diego Zoo Kids. 2020. Virginia Opossum. [online] Available at: <https://kids.sandiegozoo.org/index.php/animals/virginia-opossum> [Accessed 25 October 2020].

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