Didelphidae – Opossums

Native to the Americas, Opossums defy myths, poor optics, and smelly ordeals

Unlike the Australian possums, which are often confused due to a similar name, opossums belong to a completely different order and have unique characteristics and adaptations that set them apart in the animal kingdom.

Opossums possess distinctive biology and behavior that have allowed them to adapt to various habitats, from dense forests to urban environments. One of their most remarkable traits is their elongated snout, which houses a set of sharp teeth, including 50 or more, that they use for various dietary needs. This makes them one of the mammal species with the highest tooth count. Combined with their flexible diet, this feature allows opossums to thrive as omnivores, consuming anything from fruits and insects to small animals and carrion.

The act of “playing dead,” or thanatosis, is perhaps the most well-known defense mechanism of opossums. When faced with a threat, an opossum will fall into an involuntary comatose state that can last from a few minutes to several hours, emitting a foul odor from its anal glands to mimic the smell of a decaying corpse. This clever strategy often dissuades predators who prefer live prey, demonstrating an unusual but effective survival technique.

Contrary to the assumption that their odd behavior and appearance might suggest a lack of cleanliness, opossums are, in fact, meticulous groomers. They spend significant time licking and cleaning their fur, which helps them remain virtually free of ticks and other parasites. This grooming behavior also reduces their risk of contracting diseases, making them less likely to carry rabies than other mammals of similar size.

Opossums play a vital role in their ecosystems, acting as scavengers that help control insect populations and clean up carrion. Furthermore, their low susceptibility to rabies and diet, which includes ticks, contribute positively to human interests, reducing the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.