Possum or Opossum

I finally tired of not knowing whether a possum and an opossum were the same creature and if not, what was the difference. In the process, I found some really interesting things about these animals.

First, they are different animals, though both names are shared by the opossum which is the animal found in the Southeastern United States, most common is the Virginia Opossum (shown). It’s the only marsupial of any kind, that is found naturally outside of the Australian continent. Marsupials are of course mammals that bear live young and nurse them for a time in the mother’s pouch (like kangaroos and koalas).

As if that were not enough, here are some fascinating facts about opossums:

  • Opossums play dead when distressed. It’s not quite the pretense that people tend to imagine. It’s an involuntary reaction to a threatening situation in which the opossum falls prone, experiences decreased respiration and heartbeat, and secretes a musky decaying odor from its rectum. One can imagine the stepwise evolutionary development of this behavior in which successively more convincing death acts enabled ever increasing chances of survival. For example, did the odor come before or after the decreased metabolism???
  • Opossums cannot hibernate. In cold climates, they are often found with frostbite as a result.
  • The opossum is the only mammal that has an odd number of nipples. The Virginia Opossum has 13. Though an odd number, they remain symmetrical with one in the center and the other twelve in a surrounding circle.
  • The opossum frequently has litters larger than the number of available nipples. As a marsupial, a newborn requires a nipple to latch onto or they die immediately. Therefore a great many babies die at birth. Let the Intelligent Design proponents explain that one.
  • The opossum has the shortest gestation period of any mammal, 12 days.

2 Responses to Possum or Opossum

  1. Cynthia says:

    If anyone looks at this post after more than three years have gone by, the possum/opossum dilemma is easily explained. Spell opossum correctly–with only one ‘p’–and you have the problem solved [that is if you’re trying to figure out which was correct by looking up ‘oppossum’]. You’ll find that either one is correct as ‘opossum’ and ‘possum’ are synonymous.

    • John says:

      Thanks for catching the spelling error Cynthia. But looking up a word isn’t the best way to find the answer anyway. The words are synonymous only in regard to the North American opossum. Here’s a better answer courtesy of WikiAnswers (details independently verified):

      Some believe that possums and opossums are both the same animal. This is quite incorrect, however.

      The “possum” of North America is just a shorter name for an opossum, but true possums are different from opossums, and not related at all, except by virtue of both animals being marsupials.

      * Possums belong to the family Phalangeridae and order Marsupialia, while opossums belong to the order Didelphimorphia, although they are also marsupials.
      * Opossums are found only in North America, although there is a “water possum”, also known as the yapok, which is found in central and South America.
      * True possums are found in New Guinea, Australia (including Tasmania), Sulawesi (Indonesia) and a few other small islands in the Pacific region. Although not native to New Zealand, the brush-tailed possum was introduced into that country over a century ago and has subsequently become a pest.
      * The North American Opossum has a bare tail. All varieties of Australian possums have furry tails.
      * There are many varieties of possums in Australia (and New Guinea), including Gliders and the Cuscus. there are more limited varieties of the opossum.
      * Captain Cook’s botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, named the Australian animal “Possum”, referring to it as “an animal of the Opossum tribe” because he believed there was a physical resemblance.
      * Opossums were named by Captain John Smith in 1612.

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