Tracking the ‘possum

I went looking for kingfishers this afternoon, but found something else instead.  Unusual foot prints on the ice…

oppossum footprints

So I followed the footprints because they looked fairly fresh.

The animal is obviously headed somewhere.  Interesting how the rear paws completely overlap the front ones.

The animal is obviously headed somewhere. Interesting how the rear paw prints completely overlap the front ones.

Trying to be quiet (not successfully), I almost walked on the opossum before I saw his bulky body waddling across the snow toward the grassy cover.

opossum from the rear

The opossum sat motionless like this for several minutes, and then quickly waddled over to the edge of the cover and disappeared into it.

The opossum sat motionless like this for several minutes, and then quickly walked over to the edge of the grassy cover and disappeared into it.

The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is about the size of a house cat, with a sharp snout and teeth, a chubby body, and a naked prehensile tail (like a monkey) used for balance in climbing.  They are the only pouched, marsupial mammal in North America, although there are over 100 species in the Didelphid family.  They have steadily increased their range, moving west and north, only recently invading Minnesota.  Their success is most likely due to their omnivorous diet (i.e., they will eat almost anything), nasty dispositions, and large number of offspring, which remain in the pouch for up to 3 months!  Imagine carrying around a dozen little 3-month old possums as you hunt for food.

Opossum also have an unusual behavior which may also contribute to their longevity — they take on the appearance of dead or diseased animals, lying torpid, lips retracted, saliva foaming and dripping from the jaws, unable to be aroused for up to 4 hours.  In addition, they emit a foul odor from anal glands, which smells like rotten flesh.  Sounds like a pretty good deterrent to being touched or moved.

From Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opossum

From Wikipedia,  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opossum

However, like narcoleptics, opossums don’t seem to have control of this behavior — it’s involuntary.  I guess I wasn’t very frightening because my ‘possum just froze for a few minutes and then walked off.

11 thoughts on “Tracking the ‘possum

  1. Like you, every time I go looking for kingfishers, I wind up finding something else – it seems that kingfishers just sort of turn up when you aren’t looking for them! I’ve read that opossums come out of semi-hibernation on warmer days to look for food.

    • Didn’t know that! I was surprised to see the possum out in the daytime because I thought they were nocturnal. But it was a warm day, well above freezing.

    • I have only seen opossum in California, and even though they apparently have been in Minnesota for some years now, this is the first one I have seen. I’m not sure whether their northward expansion is really due to their adaptability or simply the climate warming enough to allow them to survive here.

    • No, I wouldn’t want to, but some people think they are cute enough to try to tame. They have a pretty wicked set of teeth and a nasty, snarly disposition.

  2. Great post! Great picture too!!! I saw opossums in Costa Rica, but only at night. I’m also surprised to see that they are active in winter. Somehow I always thought they would hibernate…

  3. Me too — I would have thought it was much too cold to a) find food, and b) be out and about in the chilly weather for an animal that has mostly a warm climate distribution. But Michael Crichton wrote in Jurassic Park, “life will find a way”.

  4. Cool adventure! I’ve been waiting to photograph a possum for some time but only ever glimpse that at night. Especially like their little tracks in the snow.

    • thanks, Scott. I think it was really dumb luck that I stumbled upon the possum. Odds were against it — wrong time of year, wrong time of day, but that just makes the find that much more special.

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