One animal that has adapted exceptionally well to the human environment is the Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana). This magnificent marsupial is native to Central America and the southeastern United States. In the 1890s, they were introduced and now thrive along the West Coast. In nature, they live in shrublands and grasslands, but prefer woodlands and thickets near a water source. They now also live among humans in cities and suburbs. Opossums take shelter in the burrows of other animals, tree cavities, brush piles, and under houses or decks.
The opossum is the only marsupial in North America. Marsupials are a group of mammals such as kangaroos and koalas that have pouches for their young, called joeys. As many as 13 opossum joeys nurse in the pouch for up to six weeks before climbing onto their mother’s back, where they will hold on for four or five more months. The opossum is an omnivorous generalist, meaning they will essentially consume anything edible, including fruits, plants, insects, small animals, carrion (dead animals), nuts, seeds, and human food waste. Opossums have 50 teeth, more than any other North American land mammal. Just as with humans, the variance among pointed, sharp, and grinding teeth allow opossums to rip, bite, and chew different foods. Being a generalist is often beneficial when living near humans and other animals. It reduces the need for hunting and conflicts from competition. Scavenging allows opossums to eat without having to expend a lot of energy. Eating deceased animals also helps humans and other wildlife by eliminating rotting flesh that could spread disease.
Opossums are incredible climbers, thanks to several adaptations. Their tail is prehensile, meaning they have complete control of it, using it like a fifth hand. Opossums will use their tail to carry sticks or food, wave it as a distress signal to other opossums, and will wrap it around a tree or branch for stability. Similar to how a snake wraps around an object, the opossum’s tail coils around a branch as a safety line and fifth point of balance. While joeys can hang upside down for short periods, adults are unable to. Opossums have another amazing adaptation on their hind legs. They have an opposable toe, like the human thumb, on each back foot, which allows for a stronger grasp when climbing. With these adaptations, opossums can climb and traverse with ease in arboreal and human-built environments.
In urban environments, opossums’ main threats come from humans and cars. When approached by oncoming traffic, they often respond by “playing possum,” an automatic fear response that forces an opossum’s body to go limp and appear dead. In the wild, this reaction can safeguard them from predators who prefer hunting live prey. Release of unpleasant secretions from scent glands while “playing dead” can also be a powerful deterrent. However, in the face of a fast-moving vehicle, this response is highly ineffective and often results in serious injury or death to the opossum. The Virginia Opossum is currently classified as a species of ‘Least Concern’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which means opossums are not considered threatened or endangered. As with all wildlife, they remain important to respect and protect. Opossums offer valuable services by eating carrion and pests, soil tilling, seed spreading, and pollination. When driving at night, use headlights and be aware of our furry friends.