I’m not sure why it bothered me so much, but the image of the dead opossum on the freshly graded dirt road kept crawling back into my mind. Possums are relatively rare around here. They are just finding our forests and fields in these higher altitudes. Perhaps it was just the strangeness of having this newly found animal in our midst. There is nothing good to say about this tragedy. When an animal meets its demise to the wheels of an automobile it is heartbreaking.
Most would not describe possums as pretty creatures. Some think they look like gigantic rats with their pointed head and long, nearly hairless, tail. The fact is that if you take the time to understand opossums you will learn that they are gentle, ancient throwbacks to an earlier time. Possums are marsupials which mean their young are born alive in a very early stage of development. After birth the young immediately crawl over the mother’s body to a pocket where they are reared for the next several months. As they mature they may wander out of the protective pocket occasionally and literally hang onto her fur along her back and sides. When adult opossums encounter a potential threat they growl, hiss, and show their many sharp teeth, or they roll over and play dead. The growling and hissing behavior is really a big act. In fact possums are generally gentle creatures that prefer to be left alone. When they play dead they are actually in an involuntary comatose-like state. The reason this protective strategy works is because they cannot run when they are passed out. A running animal instinctually induces a predator to chase and kill. The catatonic state of the opossum prevents this predatory behavior. It is an involuntary strategy that has worked for centuries; just one of the many adaptations that make this animal interesting. Possums also work their jaws to form excess drool which can form bubbles and foam making an opossum quite unappetizing to a potential predator. They also secrete a very smelly oil from an anal gland that keeps predators at bay.
Opossums are excellent tree climbers, which enables them to avoid predation and seek food that is not accessible on the ground. They have a prehensile tail which can wrap around branches and help stabilize their bodies while they are in precarious positions. Adult possums don’t actually hang from branches but this very useable tail acts like an extra hand when needed for balance. Opossums also have a thumb on their hind feet helping them to grasp branches when climbing. A true omnivore, opossums eat insect larvae, insects, eggs, carrion, shoots of plants, fruits, and seeds, just to name a few of their culinary delights. They also will eat garbage so it is not unusual to find this nocturnal animal stalking your trash can at night. The fact is that opossums are an important part of the ecosystem playing an important role in seed dispersal, maintaining a clean, healthy environment, and providing predators with food.
The name, opossum, came from an Algonquian word meaning white face; an apt description for this light faced animal of the night time.
Like the retreating glaciers of 12,000 years ago, possums have been moving north slowly for the past few decades. They are now found as far north as the Lake Champlain region in Vermont and southern Quebec. In northern climates the opossum is not as well equipped as some of the other native fur bearers. It is common in these northern reaches to see opossums with missing parts of their tail or ears, where hair is particularly thin, lost to frost bite during a cold winter snap.
It is no wonder that possums are constantly looking for new territory, they can breed twice a year and litters of twelve or more “joeys” are not uncommon. Although they are short lived, usually falling to predators in just a few years, the more than adequate supply of new opossums likely leads to competition that fosters an ever expanding range for these gentle creatures. Long before anyone started to talk about global warming these quiet, gentle animals were migrating north with changing temperatures. Although it sounds a bit silly, it seems that the opossum was aware of climate change before most humans.
While I am not used to seeing this admirable mammal wandering our night time forests I will welcome it with open arms. I will make room for it in my head and my heart and take the time to get to know the opossum as a regular inhabitant of these woods. Perhaps it is the one part of this thing we call climate change that I can accept with grace and wonder.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in May of 2010.