Daisy finds one playin’ possum

A few years ago on a cold winter night, Daisy, my yellow Lab, and I took a walk in the woods after a snow storm.

Daisy enjoyed plowing through the ankle-deep snow with her nose. At one point she wallowed in the snow the way she rolls in mud holes in the spring.

As we returned toward the house, Daisy took off toward the bird feeders. She dashed behind an old Christmas tree beneath one of the feeders, barked, growled and then proudly brought me a large mouthful of fur. She dropped it at my feet, waited for the obligatory “Good girl!” and pat of the head, then bounded back to the house. I guess she figured she’d done her duty.

Alive

In the dim light I couldn’t identify the object, but I suspected that just moments earlier it had been alive. After flipping on a flashlight, I recognized the gift. It was an opossum, and it seemed lifeless.

But Daisy has gentle jaws, and I could find no puncture wounds or blood. Perhaps it’s playing possum, I thought. So I stepped back and began what could have been a long wait.

An opossum’s involuntary reaction to bodily harm is to faint and play dead. It makes sense because often predators lose interest in motionless prey. The opossum’s catatonic state can last for hours, and sometimes the heart rate even slows significantly.

But on this night the animal stirred in just seven minutes. From its curled fetal position, it first moved its head, then stood up. Slowly, it looked around. But it was a full 15 minutes before it finally wandered back into the woods.

Ugly creature

Though an opossum’s salt-and-pepper fur is thick and soft, their beady eyes, pointy snouts, and naked tails suggest an overgrown rat. They weigh 4 to 10 pounds, about the size of a house cat.

When cornered, an opossum bares its 50 teeth in a pitifully silly-looking snarl. Though not one of the more beautiful members of the animal kingdom, opossums are survivors.

Opossums, like kangaroos, are marsupials — one of the planet’s oldest groups of mammals. Most marsupials live in Australia and South America; the opossum’s roots can be traced to South America.

Marsupials differ from other mammals in many ways, but the most familiar is that females carry their young in an abdominal pouch. After a brief gestation period, newborn marsupials climb up their mother’s abdomen and into her pouch. There they latch onto a nipple and continue to develop outside the womb.

Opossums mate in late February or March. The gestation period is just 13 days. As many as 20 naked, blind, honeybee-sized young then work their way to their mother’s pouch, using well-developed forelimbs and claws to climb through her fur.

Success

In the pouch, it’s every opossum pup for itself. Females have only 13 nipples, so at most only 13 young survive. Usually, however, only seven or eight make it to the pouch.

There they remain for about eight weeks until weaned. So though they are actually born after a very brief pregnancy, the functional gestation period is about 10 weeks.

Opossums succeed because they are generalists. They live just about everywhere — in fields, farmland, marshes and woods. They are poor diggers, so they’re content to den in old ground hog burrows, hollow trees and abandoned buildings.

And they eat almost anything — fruits, nuts, roots, sunflower seed, insects, eggs and small rodents. They even eat carrion. That’s one reason we see so many road-killed opossums. They spend too much time along highways eating the remains of other traffic victims.

Though opossums remain in their dens for days at a time during bitterly cold weather, they do not hibernate. The one Daisy found had probably been holed up for days.

Sooner or later, however, they must venture out to eat. This exposes their paper-thin ears and near-naked tails to frostbite. Ragged ears and stubby tails remind us where opossums have reached the limits of their ability to survive northern winters.

And survive is what opossums do best, even when confronted by an 80-pound Lab.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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