—This article by Jerry Cates and John Willis, first published on 14 March 2010, was last revised on 23 April 2016. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 11:03(15).
At a relatively large retirement and nursing facility in Temple, Texas, the number of Virginia Opossums that have been observed during 2010 has increased considerably over similar observations in previous years. Possibly a lack of food, in the normal foraging range of these animals, is to blame.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Opossums, skunks, armadillos, raccoons, squirrels, bats, and other mammals often take up residence in the attics, basements, walls, and other portions of residential and commercial structures. Most home or business owners are not equipped to properly perform a mammal exclusion project at their homes or businesses. You may believe you are an exception to this rule, and it may be true. If, however, you don’t have the time or interest needed to (1) study all the legal/technical issues involved, (2) tackle all the mechanical habitat modifications, (3) obtain and properly use the protective gear needed to avoid injury from or contamination by the animal and its associated disease-causing organisms, (4) inspect for, find, and then seal all the ingress/egress ports in your home’s or business’s exterior, (5) clean up, disinfect, and remove the contaminants left behind by the animal, and (6) do all this within a reasonable time, you are no exception. In that case, what you need is a wildlife specialist with expertise in wild animal biology, removal, disinfecting and control. To find a qualified wildlife specialist in your local area (anywhere in North America), call Jerry RIGHT NOW at 512-331-1111.
In any case, the specimen shown at left was trapped there on 9 March 2010. This animal measures about 16 inches from its snout to (but not including) its scaly tail and weighs about 10 lbs. Thus, it is a medium-sized opossum, at least in comparison with others being found in the same general area in recent days.
Note that the body is covered with a dense, coarse fur that is pale gray or white over the main portion of the body. A dark gray, almost black mantle falls over the shoulders, reaching to the posterior edge of the top of the head. This acquires its color from sparse, but dark, hairs that are longer than the short gray, pale white hairs underneath. The legs and upper paws, by contrast, are coated with short, dark to black hairs, as is the area immediately surrounding each eye. The articulating appendages of each paw are essentially hairless, as is the prehensile tail. One can, from this appearance, understand why the Algonquin Indians referred to its forebears as “Wa-‘path-em-wa,” or White Animal. It is from this Algonquinian word that the opossum got its name.
The long snout of the Virginia opossum is very noticeable, and sets the animal off from the other mammals that share its range. So, also, are the upper and lower canine teeth in the animal’s mouth. The latter are followed, in the upper and lower jaw, by molars used for grinding and masticating. The Virginia opossum has fifty teeth in total, more than the number of teeth found in any other mammal.
If threatened by a large animal or man, the Virginia opossum hisses and growls, while opening its mouth in a wide gape, and baring a set of long, sharp, canine teeth. The gesture is intended to frighten accosting animals into breaking off their attack. If the accosting party retreats not, but instead makes contact, the opossum’s defensive maneuver escalates to actual biting, but with a muted ferocity wholly unable to cause serious injury. Should the attacker persist, and cause injury to the opossum, the latter submits by breaking off its feigned defense, adopting a passive stance that culminates in a real, unfeigned, comatose state known in animal lore as “playing possum”. Therein, the opossum appears as though dead, its “lifeless” eyes open, its limp tongue hanging out, body unmoving, and an offensive-smelling fluid draining from its anus.
Ah, but let us now speak of this opossum as one very much alive. Gander at its tail, for starters. And note that it appears as one might expect a rat’s tail, hairless, scaly, a rather loathsome sight. Some even suppose, because of this fraudulent bit of evidence, that rats and opossums share a common lineage. They would be wrong.
Not only is the opossum tail nothing like that of a rat by way of blood, but neither by way of function. No rat can loop its tail around an object and thereby carry said object wherever it wishes. The opossum tail is prehensile (Latin prehensus, “to grasp, seize”); that is, the thing is adapted for grasping and taking hold of by wrapping about that which is to be grasped. We speak of a prehensile mind, meaning one that is unusually precocious, able to comprehend complex ideas with a minimum of input and effort, and so the opossum’s tail, while to the uninitiated quite ugly, is to the zoologist a marvel of anatomical engineering. But not just the tail of the opossum is a thing of wonder…
The front paws of the opossum are remarkably like the forward hands of primates. At least in outward appearance. The fifth finger, or thumb, of the front paw is slightly opposed to the first four fingers, enabling the opossum use its front paws to grasp objects readily.
The rear paws are even more interesting. They are specially adapted to grasping, even moreso than the front paws. All four “toes” are fitted with long claws, but the fifth toe, which is fully opposable to the other four, has no claw at all. This absence of a nail, far from “throwing the horse,” enables the animal to make full use of the posterior paw’s ability to grasp limbs, holding it steady while aloft collecting fruit still hanging in the tree. Like persimmons, its favorite fruit…
With the advent of “civilized” man, the purity of the opossum’s existence became twisted. Now it chooses, more often than not, to live a life twixt commensality and wilderness. Securing food from man’s trash is much easier than living off the “fat” of the untamed wild. So, by night, it raids our offal pails, risking life and limb in the process by slinking much too close to our dogs and cats, which often take sport in driving it into a coma. Opossums in the wild rarely live more than two years. In captivity, they may live to four years, but not much beyond.
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