Virginia Opossum

From Ohio History Central
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File:Virginia Opossum.jpg
The opossum is about as large as a small dog,.… It climbs the trees and sleeps hanging to a branch by its tail, which is bare of hair and quite round. Should one approach it unawares, it never attempts to escape but lies down as dead and makes no motion, though handled and turned. The female has a bag under her belly, in which she carries her young…. The flesh of the creature tastes like pork and is eaten by the English, rarely by the Indians.

David Zeisberger's History of North American Indians, 1779-1780

Facts

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Scientific Name: Didelphis virginiana
Habitat: Farm land, wooded pastures near water. Adaptable to both rural and urban settings.
Adult Weight: 8 -15 lbs.
Adult Body Length: 15 - 20 inches; plus 9 - 20 inch tail length
Breeding Period: January - October; peak February - March.
Litters Per Year: 1 (rarely 2, much more commonly south of Ohio)
Litter Size: 5 - 25; average 9
Life Expectancy: 1 - 2 years
Foods: Carrion, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Notes

The nocturnal opossum (or 'possum) is the only marsupial ( an animal species in which the female has a pouch) in North America. Newborn young are the size of a honeybee. After birth, they must find their way into the pouch and attach to a nipple to nurse. They will continue to grow in the pouch for 50-70 days and are weaned at 80 days.

It has a long, naked tail that is used to help balance itself when climbing. Despite Zeisberger’s statement, which has been often and incorrectly repeated through time, the opossum does not “hang” from its tail. They have "thumbs" on their back feet.

The saying "playing 'possum" refers to the opossum's custom, when threatened, of rolling over and going into a state of shock that appears like death until the danger has passed. Scientists believe that this habit can not be controlled by the opossum, but is more accidental, like fainting.

The Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial living in the United States. There are several other species of opossum in central Mexico south through Central and South America.

History

Prehistory

The opossum is the oldest and most primitive of mammals in North America. Fossils show that it has changed little from its ancestors that roamed 70 million years ago. At one time, it could be found throughout the continent, but for some reason, disappeared.

Pre-Settlement

The opossum slowly migrated back into the United States from South and Central America. Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Colony gave the Virginia Opossum its name and described it as "An Opossum hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is the bigness of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth and sucketh her young".

Settlement

The Virginia Opossum was uncommon in Ohio until settlers came into the state and cleared the timber for farming.

Twentieth Century

Today, opossums can be found throughout Ohio. They have adapted to living near humans, feeding in backyards on birdseed, gardens, pet food, and garbage.

See Also