|Florida Nature: Virginia Opossum|
only marsupial, having a pouch containing the mammary glands and
serving as a receptacle for the young, is the Virginia opossum. Opossums
are about the size of a house cat, have long naked tails and small ears.
It has short legs and an opposable big toe which is clawless. The
opossum's nose or muzzle is long, pointed, and rather flat, and its ears
are thin and hairless The prehensile tail of the Virginia opossum is
long, scaly, and completely almost completely hairless. Its long fur can
be gray or brown, with many white "guard" hairs. Opossums grow to about
15 or 20 inches long and weighs between 9 and 13 pounds. Female opossums
are generally somewhat smaller than males. They have a pouch to carry
their young. Female marsupials are called jills and their young, joeys.
The Virginia opossum is found in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, down through Mexico and South America and as far south as Costa Rica. It is also well established along the North American Pacific Coast from southernmost California north to Crescent Beach, British Columbia. Opossums occur throughout the state of Florida in virtually all habitats, but prefer wooded land. Opossums are common in residential and suburban areas, and are most active at night. If threatened opossum may go limp and appear dead, hence "playing possum".
Hunted by humans for its meat as well as its fur, the Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial species found in the United States. The rest of the marsupials lost out to the carnivores in America, but this possum was able to survive by virtue of two attributes. For its size, it can be a very fierce fighter, which can startle many carnivores into looking elsewhere for a meal. But in the event that the possum runs into a carnivore much larger, then it has the ability to "play dead." No matter what the attacker does, the possum just lies motionless. Playing "possum" like this does not always succeed, because a few carnivores enjoy carion (food that is already dead); however, in those instances where the larger animal is interested only in protecting its territory or a large female is only interested in protecting its young, this "dead" attitude works quite well, and the larger attacker simply walks away.
The Virginia opossum is a solitary nocturnal animal. Opossums lead a solitary, secretive life, wandering from dusk to dawn in search of food, then spending the day sleeping in a brush pile or hollow log. Opossums are nocturnal animals and have very poor social development. Females tend to live in groups, but the males fight when confined together. Groups of opossums are composed primarily of young because of their short life span.
The Virginia opossum is omnivorous, eating mostly insects, fruit, small vertebrates, and eggs. It builds nests by packing leaves into tree hollows and is both arboreal and terrestrial. Opossums are attracted to virtually any type of available food, including garbage, pet food, or cultivated fruits and vegetables. To prevent attraction of opossums garbage cans should be secured with rubber straps, and pet food should be taken in at night.
The mating season for opossums lasts from January to July. Copulation is usually initiated by the male. Birth occurs about 12.5 to 13 days after copulation. The average litter size ranges from 7 to 9. Depending on latitude, opossums have one or two litters per year. Female opossum bear litters of housefly-sized young that crawl to the fur-lined pouch and attach to one of 13 nipples where they feed on milk for about 2 months. The young may then leave the pouch and ride on their mother's back. There is no maternal bond between the mother and young after they are weaned.
As scavengers, Virginia opossums play an important role in the ecosystem by eating foods and garbage that other animals may not. They are important prey items for predators in the areas where they occur. Virginia opossums are preyed on by predators such as coyotes, foxes, large owls, and hawks. As young they may also be preyed on by snakes and smaller birds of prey, such as falcons.
Adapted well to the presence of humans. Opossums appear to be extending their geographic range. The population density in the wild is not very high (one animal per ten acres). Virginia opossums rarely live for longer than 18 months. The oldest known opossum in the wild was 3 years old when last captured. Although they are preyed upon by several predators, most are killed by cars.
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