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Species Description

Virginia Opossum

Didelphis virginiana


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Classification

Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Didelphimorphia
Family: Didelphidae

Description

The coarse, grizzled fur is generally grayish but can vary from white to brown to black. The head and body are 38 - 51 cm (15 - 20 in) long. Weight, 4 - 6 kg (8.8 - 13.2 lb). The unmistakable Opossum is generally about the size of a plump house cat, with a long, naked prehensile (grasping) tail, a white face with a pointed snout, and naked leaf-like ears. Opossum feet are shaped somewhat like human hands, with an opposable thumb on the hind feet. This is North America's only marsupial.

Life Cycle

The Opossum is related to kangaroos because it rears its young in a pouch, a fact which makes it unique among Georgia's mammals. The Opossum breeds from January to mid-summer, generally producing 2 litters a year. From 3 to 25 naked, embryo-like young are born about 2 weeks after mating. At birth the young crawl to the pouch where they attach to one of 12 to 13 nipples. Only those that attach to a nipple will live, and generally only 6 or 7 young survive to leave the pouch. At 2 months, the young detach from the nipple but remain in the pouch. They leave the pouch when 70 - 80 days old. The young will then hang onto the mother's back as she forages and will begin to eat solid foods. At 100 days, the young become independent and leave the mother.

Natural History

The Opossum is generally nocturnal, actively foraging for food at night. The species is omnivorous, eating both plants and animals. Its diet includes, fruits, berries, insects, crayfish, small rodents, carrion (dead animal flesh), and even human garbage. The prehensile tail and opposable thumb on the hind feet help the Opossum climb trees in search of bird eggs and young. Opossums are preyed upon by hawks, owls, foxes, the Bobcat, the Coyote, and humans. This adaptable animal is quite successful at surviving in residential and suburban areas, but is no match for vehicular traffic. It is one of the most frequently observed dead animals on roadways in both rural and urban habitats. If attacked or tormented by a potential predator, an opossum will feign death by going limp and appear quite dead, the behavior commonly referred to as "playing possum." Once the attack or torment has ended, if still alive, the Opossum will quickly "regain consciousness" and escape.

Range

Virginia Opossum Region Map The Opossum ranges over most of the United States, except for a few western and northern states. It is found throughout Georgia, inhabiting a wide range of habitats from Coastal Plain swamps and pine flatwoods to pine-hardwood forests of the Piedmont and mountain regions.

Conservation Status

The Opossum is a common mammal throughout Georgia. During its hunting season, it is sometimes killed for sport in the South. The meat is edible but oily. The fur is salable but of little value.

Similar Species

No other mammal in Georgia or North America looks similar to the Opossum.