The Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial found in North America. A solitary and nocturnal animal about the size of a domestic cat, it is a successful opportunist and is found throughout North America from coast to coast (introduced to California in 1910). It ranges from Central America and Mexico to southern Canada, and seems to be still expanding its range northward. It is often seen near towns, rummaging through garbage cans, or dead by the side of the road.
Opossums are typically 15″“20 inches (38″“51 cm) long and weigh between 9 and 13 pounds (4″“6 kg). Their coats are a dull grayish brown, other than on their faces, which are white. Opossums have long, hairless tails, which can be used to grab branches and carry small objects. They also have hairless ears and a long, flat nose. Opossums have 50 teeth (the most among land mammals) and clawless thumbs on their rear limbs.
The Virginia Opossum is noted for its reaction to threat. This is the beginning of the term “playing possum”. This term is used to describe an attempt to pretend to be dead or injured. The reaction seems to be quite non-voluntary, and to be triggered by extreme fear. It should not be taken as an indication of submission. Under serious threat, an opossum will respond ferociously, hissing, screeching, and showing its teeth. But with enough stimulation, the opossum will enter a near coma, which can last up to four hours. It lies on its side, mouth and eyes open, tongue hanging out, with green fluid emitting from its anus, and emitting a fowl odor to most predators. Besides discouraging animals that eat live prey, playing possum also convinces some large animals that the opossum is no threat to their young. Opossums in captivity are known to engage in cannibalism. An injured opossum should never be placed in captivity with healthy opossums.
Though some humans are fond of these creatures, many consider them to be rather ugly. They are commonly encountered as road kill. Like raccoons, opossums can be found in urban environments. There they eat pet food, rotten fruit, and garbage. Housecats have been widely reported to be surprisingly tolerant of opossums.