Didelphis virginiana Kerr
Color photo by Barbara L. Clauson.
Description: Opossums are the only marsupial to occur in the United States, and are abundant in Kansas. It is related to kangaroos, is the only mammal in Kansas with a pouch for carrying its young, and is distinguished from other Kansas mammals by adults having: 1) 50 teeth (more than any other mammal in Kansas), 2) a white face with an elongated muzzle, 3) a long, scaly, prehensile tail, 4) partly naked ears and feet which, in cold weather, are pink, 5) coarse, grizzled body hair, generally grayish in color, but varying from white to brown or black, 6) forefeet which have five clawed toes, and 7) hind feet with opposable thumbs which have flat nails instead of claws. Adult males are somewhat larger than females.
Size: Adults may attain the following dimensions: total length 643-860 mm; tail 253-378 mm; hind foot 53-75 mm; weight 2.7-5.9 kilograms.
Range and Habitat: Occurs throughout the state, but is more common in the eastern than in the western part. It is most often found in deciduous forests, especially along water courses or moist areas that are bordered by pastureland, fallow fields, and grasslands. Population numbers fluctuate in response to the severity of winters. They are especially abundant in urban settings.
Reproduction: Opossums are prolific breeders. Breeding first takes place in late January to mid-February. In thirteen days, three to 17 or more naked embryo-like young are born and crawl into the female's pouch where they attach to one of 12 to 13 nipples. Newborn in excess of the number of available nipples die; an average of seven young survive. At two months of age the eyes open and they let go of the nipples, but they continue to nurse from the pouch. At 80 days they take solid foods and accompany the female by grasping her fur, and holding her tail with their own. At 100 days they become independent and leave the female. A second litter is usually born in May or June.
Habits: The sight of reflected light from the eyes of a night-roaming opossum is the usual encounter with this mammal. There are many times, however, when opossums can be seen during the day as they move through forests, especially on dark, overcast winter days. When suddenly approached or struck by a sharp blow, opossums will frequently appear to go into shock and with eyes closed will remain motionless for a time, "playing possum"; they will eventually revive and continue on their way. In severely cold weather opossums are inactive, and remain in their dens. Den sites are in cavities of standing trees, in hollow logs on the ground, or in depressions under fallen trees where dried grasses and leaves from the nest. Cavities in cliffs and rocky outcrops, when available, also provide protection.
Food: Opossums will eat nearly all available foods. During the Summer and Fall, much of their diet is fruit and insects. Along water courses they hunt frogs, tadpoles, clams, and crayfish. They spend a considerable amount of time in trees seeking bird eggs and young. On the ground they take invertebrates, small mammals, birds and any kinds of carrion. In late fall and winter when other foods are scarce, they consume carrion as well.
Remarks: Because of their slow and deliberate movements, opossums are easily overcome by many kinds of predators, particularly great horned owls, coyotes, foxs, and bobcats. Opossum tracks are easily recognized and show the characteristic opposable thumb and widely separated digits.
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