Virginia Opossum

Didelphis virginiana

opossum_0043.jpg

Opossum in snow
An opossum walks on snow in search for food after a snow storm at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area near Columbia, Mo.
Noppadol Paothong
Family

Didelphidae (opossums) in the order Marsupialia

Description

The Virginia opossum is a medium-sized mammal with long, rather coarse, grayish-white (sometimes darker) fur; a sharp, slender muzzle with a pink nose; prominent, thin, naked ears; a white or yellowish-white head; short legs; and a long, grasping tail covered with scales and scant hairs. Males and females look alike, although mature females possess a fur-lined belly pouch for carrying young, and adult males in particular often have damaged ears and tail tips due to freezing.

Size

Total length: 24–34 inches; tail length: 9–15 inches; weight: 4–15 pounds.

FG-0014_Opossum.mp4

Video of an opossum in the wild.

Opossum

young opossum climbs a tree
Although opossums are famous for "playing possum"-pretending to be dead when threatened-they will hiss in conflicts with other animals or if cornered.

opossum_youngcmykrgb.jpg

opossum with young
opossum mother with young on her back

16reta_barkley_possum_birchtree.jpg

Juveline opossum at Peck Ranch CA
Juvenile opossum at Peck Ranch CA
Juvenile opossum at Peck Ranch CA
Habitat and conservation

Opossums prefer wooded areas mostly near streams, especially near farms as opposed to densely wooded areas. They are also common in urban and suburban areas. Management includes regulated harvesting to maintain healthy populations. In Missouri, hunters and trappers may pursue opossums during furbearer season. Check the current Wildlife Code of Missouri for details.

Foods

Opossums eat a variety of foods but prefer animal matter, including many varieties of insects, and carrion of rabbits, cats, squirrels, mice, and other animals. Reptiles, amphibians, crayfish, birds and bird eggs, and earthworms are also eaten. Fruits are eaten particularly in fall and early winter and include pokeberry, grapes, persimmons, papaws, and more. Opossums are also known to scavenge food from unsecured garbage cans.

image of Opossum Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Abundant throughout the state; less abundant in the northwest and southeast regions.

Status

Because of the opossum’s abundance, management requires only a regulation of harvest.

Life cycle

Breeding season begins in early February, and gestation only lasts 12 or 13 days. Most litters are born by the end of February. The blind, incompletely developed young are less than a half inch long; at birth they make their way to the mother’s pouch, where they nurse until they are weaned, usually in May. The females can mate again at this time, with the second litters usually weaned by the end of September. Young of both sexes breed the first year after birth.

Human connections

Opossum fur is used in making coats, and many people enjoy baking and eating opossum. An opossum might look something like a large rat, but its life history, biology, and habits make this nocturnal mammal worthy of appreciation. What other mammal in our state can hang by its tail, “play dead,” and carry its young in a pouch?

Ecosystem connections

Opossums feed on many insects considered injurious by farmers, and they also perform an important ecosystem function by feeding on carrion. Opossums fall prey to foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and owls.

Signs & Tracks

Front track:

  • 2 inches long
  • 5 toes, fairly evenly widespread
  • track looks star-shaped.

Hind track:

  • 2 inches long
  • 5 toes
  • thumb is at right angle; middle three together; fifth toe separate.

Other notes:

  • Opossums are common throughout Missouri, especially in wooded areas.
  • The hind foot is handlike, with a thumb sticking out at a right angle that does not leave a claw print.
  • Often confused with raccoon tracks.
  • Opossums are active in winter, while raccoons are dormant or inactive.
  • The front track is often positioned beside the hind track, near the angle formed by the thumb and fingers of the hind track.
  • The left and right sides are 4 inches apart.
  • The distance between strides is 7 inches.
  • The tail commonly leaves a track, often gently undulating, especially in snow.
Illustration of Virginia opossum tracks