The only marsupial native to the United States and
Canada, the Virginia opossum is an exotic species for the central
coast region of California. Reportedly brought to the region in
1895 as a game animal, the opossum has since done quite well in
the area if the abundance of roadkill carcasses strewn along the
highways is any indication.
The Virginia opossum looks like a large rat with
its hairless, prehensile tail and long snout. It is a nocturnal
and usually arboreal animal that hisses when confronted or even
goes into a catatonic state (plays possum) when put under a lot
M. Johnson, California Academy of Science
|Since the opossum is a marsupial,
its young (as many as 20) are "born" after an extremely
short gestation period of as little as 11 days in an under-developed
state and must crawl up the belly to the pouch where they attach
themselves to the only thirteen available nipples. The surplus
young who cannot find a nipple perish. The oppossum babies stay
attached for two to three months of further development and
then spend another one to two months with the mother until they
are ready to go solo.
||Since the reconnection of South and
North America by the Panama land bridge around 3 million years
ago, many species of animals have migrated between the two continents.
Camelids, canids and felids went south whereas opossums, sloths,
anteaters and armadillos came north. Since the opossum is primarily
arboreal, it is not surprising that the marsupial could not
traverse the deserts and grasslands of the west to populate
the forested regions of California and the Pacific Northwest,
that is, until they were brought in by people to be used as
game animals in the late nineteenth century.
At right we can see the toothy grin of an opossum skull.
Indeed, the opossum with 50 has more teeth than any other
land mammal in North America. Notice the small volume available
for enclosing the brain. Notice, too, the large openings
encircled by the zygomatic arches. The opossum seems to
be much more jaw muscle than brain.
The word opossum is one of the oldest indigenous American
words in the English language. Promotional literature of
1610 extolling the virtues of Jamestown, England's first
settlement in the New World, spoke of the wild "Apossouns,
in shape like to pigges"-- apossoun being Algonquin
for "white beast."
Coe Park specimen
photo Kenneth Adair