A possum is any of about 63 small to medium-sized arboreal marsupial species native to Australia, New Guinea and Sulawesi. The name derives from their resemblance to the opossums of America, which are distant relatives. (The name is from Algonquian wapathemwa, not Greek or Latin, so the plural is possums, not possa.) Possum is also used in North America as a short term for the Virginia Opossum. The Possum’s rank odor is due to its over-sized musk glands located behind each ear.

Possums are small marsupials with brown or grey fur, ranging in size from the length of a finger, to the length of a forearm. All possums are nocturnal and omnivorous, hiding in a nest in a hollow tree during the day and coming out during the night to forage for food. They fill much the same role in the Australian ecosystem that squirrels fill in the northern hemisphere and are broadly similar in appearance.

The two most common species of possums, the Common Brushtail and Common Ringtail, are also among the largest.

Interaction with humans

The animal has been a part of Australian culture and folklore since the original indigenous inhabitants of the country. In modern times, the phrase “Hello possums!” made famous by satirist Barry Humphries’ character Dame Edna Everage has become a celebrated catchphrase.

Possums are commonly found in suburban areas. They are often considered pests owing to their habit of eating fruit, vegetables, flowers and tender young shoots from gardens, and nesting in roofs. The loud hissing, crackling territorial call of the male Common Brushtail may also be a problem for suburban residents. Natural deterrents, which play upon the possum’s acute sense of smell, are often employed to discourage them. These include cloves of garlic, camphor or naphthalene. As a native species possums are protected by regulations, even when they reside in urban neighborhoods. They cannot be baited, killed as pests, and if captured the regulations stipulate that they must be released within a small radius of that locality. The Possum’s rank odor is due to its over-sized musk glands located behind each ear.

Although the Common Brushtail and (to a lesser extent) Ringtail possums have adapted well to the urban environment, many of the lesser-known species are reduced in number, threatened, or endangered.