Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)


Class: Mammalia
Order: Didelphimorphia
Family:    Didelphidae
Size:    Height: 15 to 20 inches (38 to 51 cm)
Weight: 9 to 13 pounds (4 to 5.9 kg)
Diet: Carrion, rodents, insects, frogs, plants, fruit and grains
Distribution: United States, Mexico and Central America
Young:  6 to 25, 1 to 3 times per year
Animal Predators:  Foxes, dogs, coyotes, bobcats and owls
IUCN Status: No special status
Terms: Male: Jack   Female: Jill   Young: Joey
Lifespan: 3 to 5 years in the wild and up to 10 years in captivity



·       The opossum is the only native North American marsupial.

·       Opossums lived during the dinosaur age—fossils from 70 million years ago have been found.

·       Although sometimes called “possums,” they are not related to Australasian possums.

·       Opossums have an opposable, clawless “big toe” on their hind foot.

·       The Virginia opossum is also known as the American opossum. 

·       Opossums are more resistant to rabies than any other mammal.


Virginia opossums are the largest North American opossums. They have coarse fur that is usually grey, but it can also be black, brown or white. Their face is always covered in white fur and they have a long snout. Their tail is naked and prehensile (capable of gripping), which enables them to hang upside down from a branch. Their ears are black, with no fur covering.  



Virginia opossums are found only in North America and Central America. In the United States they are found on the West Coast and east of the Rocky Mountains. They range throughout Mexico and Central America. They can usually be found in urban and wooded areas in woodpiles, rock piles, and crevices in cliffs, as well as under buildings, in attics, and in underground burrows. In recent years, the distribution of the Virginia opossum has been extending northward. 


Feeding Habits

They eat a wide variety of foods, including carrion, rodents, frogs, insects, plants, fruit and grains. 



Mating season lasts from January to July, and breeding is initiated by the male. Pregnancy lasts 12 to 13 days and females may give birth to as many as 25 young (the average is six to nine). The birthing takes less than five minutes, and the young are so tiny that 24 of them could fit into a teaspoon. Females have 13 nipples in their fur-lined pouch, and the young have to make their way into the pouch to nurse. Once they have attached themselves to a nipple, they stay there for two months. When a female has more offspring than nipples, the ones who make it to the pouch last do not survive. Once they are able to move about, they spend up to another two months riding on their mother’s back. After that, they disperse and there is no further interaction between the youngsters and their mother.



Males tend to live solitary lives, while females live in groups. They are slow moving animals who are unable to flee danger. Both males and females are aggressive when threatened, and will hiss and show their 50 sharp teeth. However, if grabbed by a predator, opossums go limp and feign death, with their tongue hanging out. When the predator loses interest, the opossum fully recovers. This has led to the term “playing possum.” When not threatened, they are generally gentle animals who like to be left alone. They sleep in a burrow or within a pile of leaves inside a hollow log during the day and come out at night to forage for food. They are capable swimmers and tend to be very clean animals, grooming their long, sleek hair with their hind feet and washing their faces with their forepaws. They spend most of their time in trees and can use their tails to hang from branches. Although opossums do not hibernate during the winter, they do enter into an inactive state to conserve energy while food supplies are limited.



Virginia opossums are not a conservation concern and, although they were once a popular source of fur for coats, their abundance led to a drop in fur value, and thus a decline in opossum hunting. 



Virginia Opossum Wildlife Fact File, IM Pub, US

Vaughan, T., Ryan, J. and Czaplewski, N. (2000). Mammalogy, Fourth Edition. Orlando: Saunders College Publishing