Virginia opossum

Didelphis virginiana

SUBFAMILY

Didelphinae

TAXONOMY

Didelphis virginiana Kerr, 1792, Virginia, United States. OTHER COMMON NAMES

French: Opossum de Virginie; German: Nordopossum; Spanish: Tlacuache común, tlacuache norteño.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Length 14-21.6 in (35-55 cm); weight 28-176 oz (800-5,000 g). Long hair and dense underfur; colors vary from uniform whitish to blackish brown. Ears are black and naked, and cheeks are white. Tail nearly naked, scaly, and bicolored: the basal half is black and the distal half whitish. The feet have opposable thumbs that render their footprints unmistakable.

DISTRIBUTION

Extreme southwestern Canada, the west coast and the eastern half of the United States, tropical and subtropical Mexico, and Central America south to Costa Rica.

HABITAT

Tropical and temperate forests, in wet and subhumid ecosystems. Found in a wide variety of human-disturbed habitats from logged and secondary forests to agricultural lands and even landfills and urban areas.

BEHAVIOR

Solitary and nocturnal. Roosts in hollow trees and branches, in leaf litter, crevices and caves under rocks, and in the soil. Feigns death when threatened, gaping its mouth wide and lying on its side while emitting an offensive musky odor.

FEEDING ECOLOGY AND DIET

Omnivorous. Eats fruit, insects, eggs, small vertebrates, spoiled fruit, carrion, and even trash. Forages at night opportunistically and avoids other medium and large-sized mammals such as raccoons and skunks. It is not a good hunter but rather eats items that are easily available.

REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY

Polygamous. The female builds a nest with leaf litter and vegetation that she transports with the help of the tail. The reproductive season extends from January through July and two birth peaks are reported. After a gestation of about 13 days, as many as 21 young are born undeveloped. Only the first to make it to the pouch are able to survive, as the female has only 13 teats and rarely are all occupied by a young one.

CONSERVATION STATUS

Not threatened. Inhabits both pristine and modified ecosystems. They have colonized towns and cities and they are not rare in New York City, Miami, or other large cities. The species does not face any immediate threats of extinction.

SIGNIFICANCE TO HUMANS

Sometimes consumed for food by indigenous or mixed human groups. The species has been pointed out as an agricultural pest or a disease reservoir. ♦

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