Virginia Opossum
Web Site Name

Virginia Opossum                               

The Virginia Opossum, North America's only marsupial, has been around for at least 70 million years, making it one of the Earth's oldest surviving mammals. Opossums were here on Earth when dinosaurs existed and have managed to outlive them. The name opossum comes from the Algonquin Indian word "apasum", meaning white animal.


Common Name: Virginia Opossum

Scientific Name: Didelphis virginiana


Range: Although first observed by English colonists in the state of Virginia, the opossum can be found throughout most of the United States and portions of Canada and Mexico. Opossums are very adaptable, being able to live wherever there is food and water. They are found in all kinds of habitats from residential, to rural, to wilderness.


Life Span: The opossum is one of the shortest lived mammals for its size, living 2-4 years, with 1-2 years being the average. This shorter lifespan is due in part to the large number of predators, including dogs, cats, owls, larger wildlife (such as fox, coyote) and even humans.


General Information: The opossum, as mentioned above, is a marsupial, having a pouch in which to feed and house its offspring. The average opossum is about the size of a large house cat. It has a triangular face with a pointed snout. It has gray to black fur over its entire body, except for the ears, feet and tail, which are bare. It has an opposable thumb called a hallux  on its back feet, and this helps it grasp branches when climbing. Its tail is prehensile, and is used for grasping and wrapping around things such as tree limbs. The opossum, however, cannot hang by its tail as is commonly believed.

     Opossums are slow moving, solitary animals that are actually quite gentle and placid. They would much rather avoid a confrontation. However, when frightened or cornered, they will hiss or growl and show their 50 very sharp teeth. If this doesn't work, a opossum may drool, urinate, or defecate. If all else fails, a frightened opossum will often roll over, become stiff and fall into a coma like state, its breathing becoming slow and shallow.  This state of "playing 'possum" can last up to four hours and a predator will often think the opossum is dead and leave it alone.

     The opossum does not hibernate in the winter. However, due to its hairless tail, ears and feet, the opossum will often hole up during very cold weather to avoid frostbite on its exposed parts.


Diet and Feeding Habits: The Virginia opossum is nocturnal and uses its very keen sense of smell to find food. It is an omnivore and will eat almost anything. Opossums eat mice and rats, and all kinds of insects, including cockroaches, beetles and crickets. They love snails!

     They also eat fruit and vegetables, and are often attracted to residential neighborhoods by pet food left out overnight or overripe fruit that has fallen from trees. Sometimes opossums will eat garbage and carrion, or dead animals. Unfortunately, since carrion is often road kill, opossums are often killed by cars while searching for food along highways.


Reproduction: Baby opossums are born after a gestation period of 11-13 days. When born, they are the size of a navy bean and must crawl up the mother's fur into the pouch. If they make it to the pouch and manage to find one of the thirteen teats inside, they will survive. The baby opossums attach to the teat and will remain there, nursing for 55-60 days.

     When they are large enough and the pouch gets crowded, the babies will move out of the pouch and cling to the mother's back. This ride-a-long will continue for about 5 to 6 weeks, until they are old enough to manage on their own in the wild.


Photo Gallery


Below are some photos of opossums at various stages of development. All photos were taken by staff at Wilderness Haven Wildlife Center. All animals taken in at Wilderness Haven are cared for only until they are well enough, or in the case of babies, have grown enough to be able to survive on their own. All animals are then released in an safe area appropriate to the species. Wildlife should NEVER be kept in captivity as pets.


Baby opossums with eyes still closed.

Older Baby opossum

Baby opossum exploring his environment during cage cleaning at our wildlife facility.

 The same opossum as above, 3 pounds larger. At last the big night...release!

There he goes! From 34 grams to 3.5 pounds. Goodbye Opie!