Until Labor Day night 2018, I had never seen a wild, live Virginia opossum. The only wild opossum I had ever seen before this was about 10 years ago near Keokuk, Iowa, but those animals were dead along a highway.
So as I was driving in southeast Minnesota in a light rain not far from Forestville-Mystery Cave State Park a few nights ago, a small creature scampered across the blacktop. Though the animal was at the farthest extent of my high-beams, I immediately recognized the animal as none other than an opossum. Cool! My first 'possum.
Minnesota is indeed home to one of North America's most unique and unusual mammals. While it's rare to observe one of these creatures here in the northland, the strange looking animals are observed from time to time in the north-central part of the state. Most of them, however, inhabit woodlands throughout the southern half of the state.
Weighing around four to 12 pounds, with a length about three feet long from nose to tail, the rat-like opossum is no more a rat than it is a rodent. In fact, unlike any other mammal in North America, the opossum is the continent's only marsupial.
Like all mammals, opossums are furry and they suckle their young. However, what they also have, which non-marsupial mammals do not possess, is a pouch. Most marsupials have permanent pouches, but there are a few that have temporary pouches and some that have none at all.
Female opossums give birth to usually seven to eight babies and sometimes many more. After they're born, each of the young completes an arduous, unaided, and solo journey to their mother's pouch. Like other marsupials, they then attach themselves to a teat and begin feeding. And it's there — inside the warm and protective pouch — that they remain for a little over two months to grow and develop before venturing out again.
Even so, the security of their mother's pouch is such that for another month the baby opossums are in and out and rarely go very far from mother. When they are about the size of mice, opossum babies begin spending most of their time hitching rides on their mother's back until becoming more independent and eventually leaving all together.
The Virginia opossum is covered in grayish fur everywhere except for its feet, tail, and ears. The nakedness of these body parts might lend credence to why the animals are not often seen farther north. Nonetheless, the assumed shortcomings haven't stopped the non-hibernating opossums from taking up residence in Minnesota.
Other anatomically unique features of the opossum is its tail and "thumbs." The tail is essentially another limb, "prehensile" as it is called, and able to wrap around and grasp limbs as an adaptation for climbing, much like that of monkeys. The thumbs, or "halluxes," are indeed opposable, just like our own thumbs. Though located only on the rear feet, an opossum's halluxes enable the animals to securely grasp branches as they maneuver up and down trees.
Perhaps one of the most interesting opossum behaviors is what it will do when threatened or frightened. Purely a survival mechanism, opossums are masters at fooling would-be predators into thinking that they're dead. It's of course where the expression, "playing 'possum" originally came from.
Opossums will frequently roll over, stiffen out, salivate, and breathe ever so slowly in a coma-like state that can last as long as four hours. Such behaviors often confuses predators that are accustomed to chasing their prey. Thus, some potential opossum predators give up and leave. And though the small opossum that quickly crossed the road in front of my truck a few nights ago didn't employ this particular survival tactic, it's well and good that it didn't, for few would survive for long playing dead on roadways!
The Virginia opossum is a strange but interesting mammal that has slowly migrated northerly, seemingly finding a niche in parts of Minnesota. And who knows? Conceivably with warmer and shorter winters and continued changing climate, one might expect someday to see opossums here in northern Minnesota, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.