a young opossum
playing possum, curled up, mouth
open, feigning dead
I am surprised to see a young opossum is sitting on the grass in our front yard because 'possums are usually nocturnal. It's between me and the car, so I walk slowly towards it. The 'possum's face looks a little beat up and I wonder if it was attacked by something. When I get a little closer, it hisses quietly and bares its 50 sharp teeth. This is just a bluff because 'possums are not good at actively defending themselves. When frightened, they usually run, or if cornered, they employ a passive defense method. As I get even closer, the 'possum flops down on its side, saliva foaming from its open mouth, eyes closed, and a foul smell coming from under its tail, "playing 'possum" to make me think it's dead. The young 'possum has plenty of room to flee, so it's odd that it faints. But this involuntary defense behavior has served the species well, because opossums have been around since the age of the dinosaurs, at least 70 million years.
The Virginia opossum is North America's only marsupial mammal. After a short gestation period of 13 days, the female gives birth to a litter of about 5-8 babies. The babies have to find their way into the mother's pouch (marsupium), where they attach to a teat and nurse until they are about two to three months old. Then the mother carries them on her back another month or two whenever they are away from the den. The babies cling tightly to her soft fur even when she is running or climbing. Opossums have thumbs on their hind feet and prehensile tails which they use as a brace and fifth hand when they climb trees.
Opossums have very good immune systems, being almost immune to snake venom and rabies. They can live just about anywhere and will eat just about anything: cockroaches, frogs, birds, slugs, snails, earthworms, over-ripe fruit, rats, mice, human garbage, pet food and carrion. Unfortunately, many of them are killed by vehicles while they are scavenging roadkill. Very few survive to adulthood and even then they don't live long, only two to four years. Opossums have a gentle, placid nature, as seen in the photo of the old man with a pet 'possum on his shoulder.