Opossum

(This column first appeared in the May 11, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Few of us realize that the opossum is a common mammal here, in fact about equally prevalent now in rural, suburban and urban areas. They are invading more populated districts because, like crows and raccoons before them, 'possums are taking advantage of the plastic garbage bags that too many of us set out in the evening for early morning collection.

    Even those of us who can identify the opossum know it most often as a torn and flattened body lying at roadside. That is, of course, because this is another nocturnal denizen, most often active around midnight.

    It is difficult to generate much affection for these primitive animals of low intelligence. They are ugly, rat-like creatures with unkempt dirty white fur tinged with black. They are omnivorous and eat carrion, birds' eggs, insects, garbage, in fact whatever they can get their cone-shaped snouts into. One of their defenses is to exude a foul greenish secretion from their anal glands. And some of them are rabid.

    Yet, despite these unsavory characteristics, this is surely the most unusual and interesting animal of this region.

    The opossum is the mammal from which we derive the phrase "playing possum." Sometimes when frightened it will growl and hiss or run -- that word a little strong for its slow lumbering gait. More often it will literally faint dead away and remain in a catatonic state sometimes for hours. Its heartbeat slowed, it lies on its back limp, eyes closed, lips drooling, mouth agape in what one naturalist calls "a sinister grin."

    This is quite different from the defense of the hog-nosed snake or puff adder, which, when threatened, rolls over and plays dead. If you turn the snake right side up, it will promptly roll back again. It is obviously bluffing, the possum is not. Unfortunately for the possum, its defense doesn't help much in the headlight glare of a speeding car.

    The scaly bare tail of the possum is also unusual. It is prehensile, that is it is controlled like a fifth limb, a characteristic generally restricted to a few monkey species. The tail helps the awkward animal to climb trees and it is looped around leaves and brush to drag them to its nest. On one of those rare times when I have seen a possum, I caught a young one in my flashlight hanging by its tail from a vine and stuffing wild grapes into its mouth. Disturbed by the light, it swung up like a trapeze artist and, continuing to use that tail, climbed the vine to disappear in the foliage.

    Still more remarkable is the way the opossum raises its young. It is our only North American marsupial -- a kangaroo relative. Generally solitary animals, the females are briefly joined by males to mate in late winter. After only thirteen days their 4 to 25 young are born. Scarcely bigger than houseflies, the blind offspring are hardly formed except for their forelegs with sharp claws. They use these to climb rapidly to their mother's pouch, this mad two-inch dash through scruffy fur taking them less than twenty seconds. And race they must for failure to find one of the 13 nipples in that pouch means a death sentence. Each successful baby clamps onto its nipple and holds on for the next two months.

    When finally weaned, the young possums spend another two months riding on their mother's back. Only then are they are ready to begin independent lives.

    The opossum may be an ugly beast that only its mother can love, but I am in awe of its unusual qualities.