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The Virginia Opossum

Lynn Dickinson

Lynn Dickinson is a Regional Extension agent.

The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana), also commonly known as possum, is an animal most people have mixed feelings about. Whether you see their presence as a benefit or a nuisance, most will agree that they are a unique species. Native to Central America and the southern United States, opossums have extended their range by moving north over the last 100 years. They can now be found in eastern, central and west coast states, and as far north as Ontario, Canada.

 These slow-moving animals have a long-pointed face with prominent canines. They have 50 teeth, more than any other mammal in North America. They have a rat-like hairless tail and while they don’t see well, their hearing is quite acute. Being the only marsupial, or pouched animal in the United States makes the opossum a unique species. They generally have two litters a year. The opossum gives birth to relatively underdeveloped young after a short 13-day gestation period. The young are only about half an inch long and blind at birth. They each try to make their way into the female’s pouch in the hopes of attaching to a teat. The female opossum only has thirteen teats, and not all of them always produce milk. With a litter size of approximately twenty, and only thirteen teats, those that do not attach, perish quickly. The average litter size is seven to eight. Once attached, the young remain in the pouch for seven to eight weeks and are not completely weaned until they are about 108 days old.

 Opossums prefer diverse habitats that range from arid wooded forests to open fields and urban areas; however, they prefer a habitat that is near a stream or wetland. These opportunist animals are omnivorous and will consume both plant and animal matter including insects, snakes, mice, lizards, grasses, fruits, and vegetables. They are also partial to pet food and trash. Their appetite for snakes, mice rats, and insects make them beneficial to have around. However, their appetite for food scraps, and garden vegetables often causes them to be thought of as a nuisance animal. They will also consume carrion and therefore play an important part in the balance of nature.

 If you have an opossum that is causing damage, modify the habitat by ensuring there are no brush piles on your property and if you find any places where they have been burrowing, plug the burrows to reduce the frequency of visits. Removing or modifying bird feeders and removing access to pet food is also recommend. Secure any compost piles in containers designed for compost to prevent opossums from gaining access.

 According to Alabama state regulations, shooting is allowed. Regulation 220-2-27 allows property owners or tenants to take one animal per incident that is causing damage to property without a permit. Trapping is also a viable option. Opossums are fairly easy to trap with bait such as fruit or pet food. However, once caught, it is illegal to transfer the animal to another county.

 As the population continues to grow, encounters with opossums are likely. Learning to modify the habitat will help reduce homeowners’ chances of coming into contact with them. Whether you see the presence of opossums as a positive or negative, the Virginia Opossum plays an important role in Alabama’s ecosystems.

 If you have questions about this topic or other forestry, wildlife or natural resources questions, please contact Lynn Dickinson, Regional Extension Agent, at (334) 303-8360 or email rhodela@aces.edu.