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Virginia Opossum picture and information (Didelphis virginiana)


Virginia Opossum picture and information (Didelphis virginiana)The opossums are the American representatives of the ancient order of Marsupials - a wonderfully varied group of mammals now limited to America and Australasia. Throughout the order the young are born in an embryonic condition and are transferred to teats located in an external pocket or pouch in the skin of the abdomen, where they complete their development. The kangaroos are among the most striking members of this group.

Numerous species of opossums are known, all peculiar to America and distributed from the eastern United States to Patagonia. The Virginia opossum, the largest of all the species, is characterized by its coarse hair, pig­like snout, naked ears, and long, hairless, prehensile tail. Its toes are long, slender, and so widely spread that its footprints on the muddy border of a stream or in a dusty trail show every toe distinctly, as in a bird track, and are unmistakably different from those of any other mammal.

This is the only species of opossum occurring in the United States, where it occupies all the wooded eastern parts from eastern New York, southern Wisconsin, and eastern Nebraska south to the Gulf coast and into the tropics. It has recently been introduced in central California. Although scarce ill the northern parts of its range, it is abundant and well known in the warmer Southern States. These animals love the vicinity of water, and are most numerous in and about swamps or other wet lowlands and along bottomlands bordering streams. They have their dens in hollow trees, in holes under the roots of trees, or ill similar openings where they may hide away by day. Their food consists of almost everything, animal or vegetable, that is edible, including chickens, which they capture in nocturnal raids.

The Virginia opossums have from 5 to 14 young, which at first are formless, naked little objects, so firmly attached to the teats in the mother's pouch that they can not be shaken loose. Later, when they attain a coating of hair, they are miniature replicas of the adults, but continue to occupy the pouch until the swarming family becomes too large for it. The free toes of opossums are used like hands for grasping, and the young cling firmly to the fur of their mother while being carried about in her wanderings. They are rather slow-moving, stupid animals, which seek safety by their retiring nocturnal habits and by non-resistance when overtaken by an enemy. This last trait gave origin to the familiar term "playing possum," and is illustrated by their habit of dropping limp and apparently lifeless when attacked. Despite this apparent lack of stamina, their vitality is extra­ordinary, rendering them difficult to kill.

While hunting at daybreak, I once encountered an unusually large old male opossum on his wav home from a night in the forest. When we met, he immediately stopped and stood with hanging head and tail and half­closed eyes. I walked up and, after watching him for several minutes without seeing the slightest movement, put my foot against his side and gave a slight push. He promptly fell flat and lay limp and apparently dead. I then raised him and tried to put him on his feet again, but his legs would no longer support him, and I failed in other tests to obtain the slightest sign of life.

The opossum has always been a favorite game animal in the Southern States, and figures largely in the songs and folk-lore of the southern negroes. In addition, its remarkable peculiarities have excited so much popular interest that it has become one of the most widely known of American animals.