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February 7, 2014

Opossum is unique in many ways

Many years ago, I saw my first possum.

Yes, I know: It’s opossum, not possum. But no one ever pronounces the ‘O.’

Actually they are opossums in America but possums in Australia. Opossum comes from the Algonquin Indian word for white dog or white beast.

But everyone calls them possums, including me.

The possum is a very unusual creature. I saw my first one when I was maybe 8 or 10 years old. My dad had been spreading manure on our flat below the barn and told me to go down and check out the animal that was curled up near the brook. So I did. When I found him, I picked it up by its hairless tail and carried it back to the barn. It lay there for a couple of hours before getting up and wandering off.

Possums are rather unique animals. They are the only marsupials in North America, meaning the female has a pouch. A large number of babies are born, but only a few survive. They are born after a gestation period between 12 and 14 days.

Those that survive must make their way to the pouch on its mother’s belly, climb inside and grab on to one of the 13 teats. An average litter is usually about eight surviving youngsters. When they are old enough to leave the pouch, it’s not uncommon to see them riding on their mother’s back as she travels around searching for food.

The possum has a prehensile tail. It acts a lot like a monkey’s tail, but it’s not strong enough to hold the animal’s weight but for just a few minutes. It’s actually used for holding onto a limb or other structure for balance, not for hanging. People have seen possums carrying grasses and small sticks in the tails, heading for its nest.

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