The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) looks a little odd. It has 50 teeth (more than any other North American land mammal); a scaly, almost hairless prehensile tail; and five toes with sharp claws on its feet, except for the thumb-like opposable toes on the hind feet.

To some, the Virginia opossum resembles a rat, but it is actually a marsupial, related to kangaroos and koalas. Its infants nurse and grow in their mother’s pouch and, when old enough, they ride on her back until they are weaned and independent.

The only marsupial in North America, the Virginia opossum is widespread and common. It lives throughout most of the United States and in portions of Canada and Mexico.

Wherever it resides, it’s a true benefit to the area. Like nature’s sanitation department, the Virginia opossum helps keep in check harmful rodents that can carry diseases. They also keep unwanted garden pests under control. That’s because opossums eat almost anything. They like mice and rats plus all types of insects, including cockroaches, crickets, and beetles. They love snails, too, and commonly prey on snakes—even venomous ones.

Opossums are not too picky about where they live, either. They prefer woodlands and thickets near streams and swamps, but they will make their home in cities and suburbs, as long as water is nearby.

Able to move around in trees or on the ground, they make their dens in anything from hollow logs and tree cavities to abandoned buildings. Although, they seem to prefer denning in holes in the ground dug by woodchucks or other animals.

The biggest threat to Virginia opossums is getting struck by a car, which is how most opossums die. In some areas, they are also hunted or trapped for food and fur. Even so, their population appears to be expanding and their status is listed as being of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

  1. What are the characteristics of the opossum’s early life?

  2. Tiny, pink, opossum infants are so small that 20 of them could fit on a teaspoon. As marsupials, the mother carries them in her pouch, where the infants continue to develop. After they grow too large for the pouch, the young ride on the mother’s back until old enough to leave on their own.

  3. When a Virginia opossum encounters a venomous snake, which animal wins?

mammal
Noun

animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

marsupial
Noun

mammal that carries its young in a pouch on the mother's body.

opposable thumb
Noun

thumb that can be placed opposite the fingers of the same hand.

population
Noun

total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

prehensile
Adjective

appendage adapted for seizing by grasping.

suburb
Noun

geographic area, mostly residential, just outside the borders of an urban area.

wean
Verb

to accustom an animal to food other than mother's milk.

Noun

land covered with trees, usually less dense than a forest.