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February 7, 2014

Opossum is unique in many ways

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The Daily Star

---- — 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.

The hind feet of these animals also have a thumb, which is used for climbing and has no claw.

The most unusual characteristic of this white, furry creature is its ability to play dead. We refer to it as playing possum.

If you startle a possum or approach one, it will stand its ground and hiss. They look more aggressive than they are. They have quite an array of teeth — fifty in all. According to what I’ve read, the “playing dead” instinct isn’t a voluntary act. When threatened and unable to escape, the possum falls into a coma-like state which can last for up to four hours. Their lips are drawn back showing their teeth. Saliva foams from the mouth. Their eyes roll back and are partially open, and a foul-smelling green liquid oozes from its anal glands. This is how I found that first possum.

Possums have very short lifespans for mammals of their size. They only live 2-4 years, yet they have an amazing immune system. These creatures are immune to snake bites, even from rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and other pit vipers. They usually don’t carry rabies, either. It’s believed that their body temperature is too low for the virus to survive.

These ancient mammals are omnivores. They eat meat and well as vegetable matter. They like carrion and do a good job on insects as well.

Over the years, I’ve had very little contact with these wonders of nature. But I learned from my research that possums even like the slugs that eat my garden.

That’s great! If I can get a couple of them to patrol my garden every night, it will let me use the beer for its intended purpose.

Rick Brockway writes a weekly outdoors column for The Daily Star. Email him at robrockway@hotmail.com.