|How to Outwit Other Critters|
Scientific Name: Didelphia virginianus
Genus: Didelphis virginianus
Opossums in your yard and gardens can be quite a sight. While they are mostly nocturnal many a gardener has been startled by the sudden appearance of an opossum from out of the garden shed or wood pile. This garden pest has long history of upsetting gardeners which is most likely due to the fact that they will eat everything and anything including your heirloom tomatoes!
Opossums have the proud distinction of being the only marsupial in North America. A marsupial is defined as an animal that has a pouch to carry its young just like the better known marsupials such as the Australian Kangaroo. There are 65 species of opossum in the world today with the Virginia Opossum, Didelphia virginiana the most prevalent and the only opossum native to and living in North America. Opossums have a high mortality rate and rarely live beyond two (2) years of age in the wild. This can be attributed to their many enemies including dogs, foxes, raccoons, coyotes, bobcats, eagles, hawks, owls and automobiles.
The word "opossum" comes from the Algonquian Indian word "pasum" and means "white animal". The opossum's fur is actually a soft gray. The animals normally weight in at about 15 pounds and reach lengths of up to three (3) feet long including their tail. Opossum have small hand like feet with the rear feet including an opposable thumb to help grasp onto tree branches. To aid in grasping and balance they also have prehensile tail-a tail adapted for that very purpose. The tail and ears of the opossum are hairless. Combine that with a pointed face and you can understand why many gardeners have taken a quick step back when they come across this somewhat odd looking marsupial!
This animal is quite smart, in fact, according to some opossum fans, they are smarter than dogs! Nocturnal by nature, theses marsupials spend most of their days asleep in their nests and there nights out foraging for food. They are not very large as stated earlier so their defense mechanisms are quite refined.
Probably the most famous of all these defense tactics is playing dead, AKA, "playing possum". This tactic works quite well and is just as it sounds: the animal collapses onto its side and pretends to be dead until the would be predator gives up and walks away! Other strategies include drooling excessively which tricks predators into thinking that the animal is sick, the spraying of an foul smelling anal gland fluid that makes predators leave and displaying what many have coined "alligator mouth" which shows off the animals 50 teeth which would be a scary site for anyone.
As with most wild animals opossums do carry several diseases that could be harmful to humans. According to experts these include toxoplasmosis, coccidiosis, trichomoniasis, and leptospirosis, tuberculosis, relapsing fever, tularemia, spotted fever, and Chagas disease. According to experts they may also carry Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis (EPM), a disease that affects horses.
For homeowners with pets, opossums may prove especially troublesome. Not only will they feed on pet food left outside, they have been known to fight with dogs and cats. With fifty teeth and sharp claws, this has left the family pet with injuries requiring a potentially expensive trip to the veterinarian's office. Opossums are also hosts for the fleas and ticks commonly found on house pets, too.
On the other hand, opossums have such a varied diet that they have been coined "Nature's Little Sanitation Engineer" which can be quite beneficial to our yards, gardens and neighborhoods. Not only do they eat the rotting overripe apples laying on the ground keeping the area clean and the bee populations manageable, they eat nuisance pests such as mice and voles and cockroaches and leaf destroying beetles!
North America's only marsupial is surviving very successfully living in and around human habitats. Don't be surprised if your yard becomes home to the strange, albeit, cute marsupial the Virginia Opossum.