Republished courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When caught in the headlights, big-eyed deer either race across the road or turn back the way they came. Opossums have no fear. Initially indifferent to danger, they’ll continue scarfing a late-night roadkill, glancing back at the driver as if to say, “Get your own.”
But between its pointed snout and hairless rat-like tail is one of Earth’s most unusual and prolific mammals. The opossum is so adaptive it is one of the oldest mammal species, and it’s so interesting that its Facebook page recently went viral.
Hardwired to adapt to change, the Virginia opossum traces its lineage to the Eocene Epoch, a time when the continents had not quite settled into their current positions and a meteor explosion carved out Chesapeake Bay and drove many North American floral, faunal and marine species to extinction. Commonly though inaccurately called possums (the name for a similar Australian animal), they have survived the formation of mountains, prehistoric climate change, an ice age, waves of human migration and the rise of the automobile.
“Biologically it’s pretty unique. It’s the only marsupial in North America,” said Henry Kacprzyk, a biologist and curator at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.
Female opossums, called jills, have two wombs serviced by the jack’s double phallus. After gestation, up to 25 tiny hairless joeys climb into the mother’s pouch and find enough nipples to feed just 13, which latch on to one for the duration of its development. The others generally die. Jills produce two litters per year, and the jacks have no part in raising the joeys.
“As marsupials they have easier births than placental mammals and less maternal investment,” said Mr. Kacprzyk. “The downside is they do all that breeding — reproduction is fast and furious — and then they die in two years.”
Opossums are loners, except during mating and when a female is carrying its young in her pouch or on her back. They’re nomadic, staying for no more than a couple of days in a hollow log, abandoned burrow or backyard shed. Nocturnal omnivores, they’ll eat everything from insects to field mice to trash that wasn’t properly disposed.
“They’re not particularly aggressive but will ‘play possum’ when attacked,” said Mr. Kacprzyk. “They’re not acting dead. There’s a physiological change — almost like going into shock and fainting.”
Despite its beady eyes, scruffy fur and perpetual scowl, the opossum is building a 21st-century fan base with the help of Heidi Conant of Vermont, founder of Opossum Awareness and Advocacy.
“I grew up fishing, doing outdoorsy things. My dad hunts — I’ve always had a deep respect for animals,” she said. “I saw a meme about how [an] opossum kills 5,000 ticks per season and eats mice and insects that get into your garden. They’re looked at as vermin, but they’re so interesting and beneficial.”
A digital marketing professional, she shared the meme before creating her own opossum-appreciation site and posted it on Facebook in 2017.
“It took a couple of weeks to get 20,000 followers,” she said. “So I added to it — more than 50,000. I added more, with pages of opossum information and rehabilitation and ways to donate money. Soon it was 77,000 followers. And the funny thing is I’m not an expert. It’s just me. But it’s a super-fun project and so gratifying that I’m spreading awareness.”
At the Opossum Awareness and Advocacy website and accompanying blog, viewers can learn to build an opossum shelter and purchase products that support pro-opossum initiatives and education, as well as the site. Posts explain how opossums can be helpful — they eat ticks that carry Lyme disease, and possibly harmful — they tear up garbage bags, eat poultry and can carry diseases that impact horses and in rare cases humans.
“I’m hoping to create dialog about an unusual subject,” said Ms. Conant. “I do a lot of research to clarify bad information and maybe surprise both sides — wildlife activists and those who want to hit [opossums] with cars.”
The site is growing, she said, for two reasons. “It’s quirky because I’m kind of quirky, but it also gives the little guys a chance.”
Find Opossum Awareness and Advocacy at www.opossumpower.org.
John Hayes: 412-263-1991 - firstname.lastname@example.org