Dear Miss Shirley Shirley,

On our morning walk today, Little Gingersnap! and I saw an opossum for the first time! Of course, Ginger wanted to come right up to it and say hello. I was a little more skeptical because it was the biggest rat I have ever seen in my life — not that I have actually seen a rat before — but it was still the biggest rodent ever!

Well, that was when Mama L. said that possums are not really rodents. They are one of the most misaligned and misunderstood animals since most people think of them as ugly and nasty pests. So I did a bit of research, and I am going to tell you a bit about these interesting creatures now. Mama L. said you enjoy useless trivia almost as much as she does, and I need a new Number One Fan since mine has been MIA for sometime. You don’t have to do much as a Number One Fan; love and adoration is all I ask, and an occasional note will suffice.

<Photo from National Geographic Society>

So, here are a few opossum factoids. For (a lot) more information, this link will take you to Mama’s favorite Wikipedia.

1. Contrary to popular thought, an opossum (or, possum) is a marsupial, not a rodent, although both orders belong to the class mammal. It is the only marsupial in North America. A typical opossum is the size of a cat with grey to black fur, black eyes, pink pointed nose, feet and tail, and black ears.

2. The female carries and nurses her young in her marsupium (pouch) until they are about 2 to 3 months old; then they are carried on her back another 1 to 2 months whenever they are away from the den. Eventually they become too heavy to hang on during these trips and one by one fall off. By the time this happens, the young opossum is fully weaned and able to forage for himself.

3. Usage of the name was first published in 1610. The word means “white dog” or “white beast/animal”.

4. Opossums show partial or total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and other pit vipers.They are immune to most contagious and viral diseases.

5. Opossums are about eight times less likely to carry rabies than wild dogs, and only about one in eight hundred opossums are infected with this virus. This is due to their very robust and efficient immune system and lower body temperature. There is far less of a risk of infection from opossums than from house pets.

6. Opossums may hiss or growl and show their 50 sharp teeth (more than any other North American mammals) when frightened, but, in reality, they are gentle and placid. They prefer to avoid all confrontations and wish to be left alone. When they are frightened and unable to flee, they may fall into an involuntary shock-like state “playing ‘possum”, which is similar to fainting. They can remain “dead” from 1 minute to 6 hours, and can be poked, prodded, and carried away without any reaction.

7. They are omnivorous. Their diet includes insects, snails, rodents, berries, over-ripe fruit, grasses, leaves, and carrion; occasionally they will eat snakes, ground eggs, corn or other vegetables.

8. They are very adaptable and are able to live wherever water, food, and shelter exist. At home in trees, possums use their prehensile tails to help stabilize position when climbing. It does not, however, hang by its tail. They are also very good swimmers!

9. They are one of the shortest lived mammals for their size — typically 2 to 4 years. They are killed by many predators: humans (and cars), dogs, cats, owls, and larger wildlife.

10. Many people consider the opossum a filthy animal, in part because of his mousy gray coat but also because he’s often seen foraging through trash cans and is known to eat carrion. In truth, however, the opossum is one of the cleanest animals around. They groom and bathe themselves meticulously, as scrupulously as the most finicky house cat, and have even been observed to stop in the midst of eating to clean themselves several times before finishing. The only thing he’s missing is a dinner napkin!


2 thoughts on “Dear Miss Shirley Shirley,

  1. Great post – never knew there was so much going on in possum world. I was surprised to hear that they are one of the cleanest animals around – they do have a reputation for rummaging through garbage (perhaps they have a shower afterwards!). I like the picture.

  2. I am so honored to have this post dedicated to me! I will do my best (which doesn’t really say much) to be your best #1 fan. If your Mama L. knows me well enough, she would’ve told you that I’m a pretty bad writer so this is really tough work for me.

    And just to let you know…because of your Mama L., I have been nicknamed “Spicy” and “Red” for me new hairdo. It was all worth it though; the food was yummy.

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