SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — First off, using the O is the accurate pronunciation for opossum but saying possum in the U.S. is acceptable, said Leigh Spencer, the education and engagement manager for the Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls.
“Calling it a possum and not saying the O is normal,” Spencer said.
Technically, the opossums found in South Dakota and the U.S. are Virginia Opossums, Spencer said.
“They are the only marsupial native to the United States. That’s pretty cool,” Spencer said.
Most people know what an opossum looks like from photos but not many get close-up looks because they are nocturnal mammals. KELOLAND’s Don Jorgensen will have a story later on Friday evening about a Sioux Falls woman who found 10 orphaned opossums in her yard.
Opossums look a lot like rats with their rat-like tails and gray coloring. But they aren’t related to rats. They are related to kangaroos and other marsupials found in Australia. And to other opossums and marsupials in Central America and South America.
With their rat-like tails, small eyes and coarse guard hair, people sometimes get the wrong impression of opossums, Spencer said.
“They don’t have the best reputations,” Spencer said.
Spencer and the zoo’s two opossums Pixie and Primrose, aim to change those impressions. Spencer and Pixi and Primrose are part of presentations to adults and youth.
“We do get some negative reactions at first,” Spencer said of when Pixie and Primrose are first spotted in their crates.
But those impressions frequently change when they learn about the opossum.
Opossums are integral part of the enviroment
Opossums are scavengers and omnivores.
“They fill an important role,” Spencer said. Along with several other animals, opossums are “nature’s garbage men.”
The Opossum Society of the United States’ website said opossums keep neighborhoods free of rodents and harmful garden pests.
Spencer said opossums eat road kill, ticks and other insects.
Opossums may also eat cat and dog food that is kept outside. They can also get into garbage cans.
“Opossums get preyed upon pretty regularly,” Spencer said.
Owls, bobcats and coyotes are among the animals that prey on opossums.
The opossum has two lines of defense.
Opossums have 50 teeth, the most any land mammal, according to the Opossum Society.
Their defense is to show their many teeth and hiss. If that doesn’t deter a predator, then, an opossum may get continue to be scared.
They may pass out from fear which is how the phrase ‘playing possum’ or the belief that opossums play dead originates.
Opossums don’t choose to play dead, they can’t help it, Spencer said.
Night time is best, winter can be tough
Opossums are nocturnal creatures which is one reason why their eyes are small, Spencer said.
“They have a really good sense of smell, hearing and touch. They have an excellent sense of smell,” Spencer said.
Although opossums are found in rural areas and have adapted well to suburban and urban areas, many people don’t see them because they are nocturnal.
Many people recognize an opossum because of photos, Spencer said.
The marsupials are more active in the spring and summer than winter.
“The cold can get to them,” Spencer said. “Their natural body temperature is lower than that of other mammals.”
Rabies ‘extremely rare’ opossum society says
Any mammal can get rabies but the Opossum Society of the United States says on its website that rabies cases in opossums are “EXTREMELY RARE.” Those two words are in all caps on the website.
The opossum’s low body temperature may help prevent rabies, according to the society.
“They are nearly impervious to rabies because their body temperature is too low to host the rabies virus,” the Wildlife Habitat Council said in a 2017 website post. “They also rarely catch Lyme disease from tick bites, and are immune to the stings of honeybees and scorpions, botulism toxin, and snake venom.”
Mama raises babies in a pouch, on her back
Marsupials have pouches and that’s where opossum babies spend their early days.
“The pink, embryonic-looking infants are so small at birth that 20 could fit into a teaspoon,” the Opossum Society said.
Babies grow in the mother’s pouch until they are big enough to ride on her back.
When the babies are too big for the mother’s back they can do life on their own, Spencer said.
Lots of babies, short life
Female opossums can have litters at one year of age.
Female opossums can have as many as 12 babies.
A typical lifespan is 2 to 3 years, Spencer said.
“Even here at the zoo, with an on-site veterinarian…an opossum that’s two to three years old is getting to be pretty old,” Spencer said.
Zoo life for an opossum
The Great Plains Zoo’s two opossums are included in education presentations. But, Spencer said the opossums aren’t held or carried in an educator’s hands.
It’s their choice to leave a crate and walk around a presentation table.
Pixie and Primrose are regularly fed fruits and vegetables but they prefer fruit because it’s sweeter, Spencer said.
They also get a daily portion of ground meat, another favorite.
The opossums are fed a portion of a hard boiled egg three times a week. That’s also a favorite dish.
In their most recent weight check, Primrose weight a little more than 6 lbs while Pixie was at about 5 lbs.
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