THE OPOSSUM: ITS AMAZING STORY
By William J. Krause and Winifred A. Krause
THE OPOSSUM: ITS AMAZING STORY
By William J. Krause and Winifred A. Krause
Published by the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences,
School of Medicine, University of Missouri,
Copyright ©2006 by William J. Krause and Winifred A. Krause
All rights reserved worldwide. No part of this e-book may be sold.
For distribution (gratis) to libraries or media centers of any middle school, junior high school,
high school, Veterinary Schools, or County Libraries within the state of Missouri.
1. Classication and Its Meaning ........3
Discovery and Naming . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6
2. General Appearance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .8
Eyes at Night .....................16
Construction of the Pouch . . . . . . . . . . . 16
3. Evolutionary History. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
Opossum Fossils . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
A Living Fossil?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .22
Arrival in North America . . . . . . . . . . .22
4. Natural History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Current Distribution . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25
Home Range (Territory) . . . . . . . . . . . .25
Nests or Dens.....................26
“Holed Up” .......................30
Walking and Running . . . . . . . . . . . . . .34
Social Behavior . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
Life Span ........................36
Chromosome Number . . . . . . . . . . . . . .36
Resistance to Snake Bite . . . . . . . . . . . .37
Resistance to Rabies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .38
Body Temperature . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .38
5. Reproductive Biology of the Male . . . . 39
Low Sperm Numbers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39
Sperm Pairing ....................40
6. Reproductive Biology of the Female . . 43
Breeding Season . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
7. Formation of the Embryo ...........46
Initial Embryo Formation . . . . . . . . . . .48
The Shell Membrane . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
Initial Organogenesis. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 52
Fetal Membranes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .54
8. Birth ............................60
Journey to the Pouch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61
9. Postnatal Life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .65
Pouch Young Opossums . . . . . . . . . . . . 67
Acquisition of Sight . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .68
Acquisition of Hearing. . . . . . . . . . . . . .68
Acquisition of Olfaction (Smell) . . . . . . 69
Acquisition of Locomotion . . . . . . . . . .70
Maternal Behavior. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .70
10. Relationship to Man...............72
Economic Importance . . . . . . . . . . . . . .72
Scientic Importance ..............72
Threat to Human Health or Property . .73
Tips on Temporary Care of Orphans. . .73
Toilet training . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .78
List of Illustrations
Light, gray phase...dark phase . . . . . . . . . . .8
An opossum tail .......................9
A female opossum climbing among the
branches of a tree. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9
The opossum (left) can use its tail to wrap
around larger structures to aid in climbing.
...eating a grape.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Walking along the branch of a tree. . . . . . .10
Close inspection of the head . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Two young juvenile opossums
on a tree limb. .......................12
The naked palmar surface of an opossum
The plantar (under) surface of the
hind paw ...........................14
Opossum tracks .....................15
Illustrations of the pouch. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
Continental drift . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
Approximate distribution . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25
“Caught in the Act”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
Suprasternal gland patch . . . . . . . . . . . . . .29
Foraging for food during late December. . .30
A typical bluff display. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .33
An example of feigning death. . . . . . . . . . . . 33
The head (nucleus) of an immature spermato-
zoon or sperm cell...Heads of paired mature
Mature spermatozoa . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41
A single unfertilized ovum . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44
Early embryonic development . . . . . . . . . .46
A region through the center of an opossum
bilaminar blastocyst . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .47
Drawings of embryos representing embr y-
onic day ve to embryonic day nine ......48
Embryo growing within the wall of a nine-
day blastocyst. ......................49
Eight-day blastocyst . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .50
A nine-day opossum blastocyst . . . . . . . . . . 51
Embryonic day nine to embryonic
day twelve ..........................53
The nine-day opossum embryo is continuous
with, and part of the embryonic sphere form-
ing the wall of the blastocyst . . . . . . . . . . . . 54
Nine-day opossum blastocyst
and embryo. ........................55
As the developing opossum embryo enters the
interior of the blastocyst . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .56
An eleven-day opossum embryo enshrouded
by the amniotic sac . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 56
Yolk sac placenta . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57
The allantois ........................59
Deciduous claws .....................60
Snout of an opossum just prior to birth. . . . 62
The periderm ........................63
A newborn opossum . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .66
Snuggling tight to the fur of a teddy bear . . 74
A large pocket or an old sock. . . . . . . . . . . 74
A litter of older opossums . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75
Young opossums will explore a yard or eld
and instinctively begin to hunt. . . . . . . . . .75
Because of a leg injur y she was not released
back into the wild and has become an affec-
tionate member of this household . . . . . . . .76
THE OPOSSUM: ITS AMAZING STORY
The opossum (Didelphis virginiana Kerr) was the rst marsupial discovered by Western
Europeans and is the only marsupial found in the United States. In spite of its fascina-
tion to scientists, the opossum is one of the most misunderstood mammals native to
this country. This is due in part to its physical appearance. The opossum has a narrow,
tapered snout and jaws that contain fty teeth. When encountered the startled opossum
will open its large mouth to expose these formidable teeth and growl to warn potential
threats or predators. Because of this behavior, which is in fact a bluff, the opossum is
considered by many to be a dangerous creature that is a threat to man and domestic
animals. In addition, a long, naked, rat-like tail characterizes the opossum. Thus, the
opossum has acquired the reputation of being a repulsive, aggressive, rat-like creature
that should be avoided.
Generally, the only contact most individuals have with an opossum is a eeting glimpse
in a backyard or along a roadway during the late evening hours or perhaps as an encoun-
ter at night if pets are being fed outside. However, the opossums witnessed by most are
generally road kill victims. The opossum and most other marsupials, with the exception
of Australian kangaroos and koalas, are rarely exhibited in zoos or animal parks. As a
result, only a few have been privileged to closely examine this fascinating animal. The
Krauses have studied this marsupial since 1967 and the observations have resulted in
the publication of over one hundred articles including an extensive bibliography on this
They have written this short, contemporary, well-illustrated book on the opossum spe-
cically for those individuals with a limited scientic background but who are interested
in learning more about this much-maligned species. The book is designed to be a useful
text so that specic information with regard to the opossum can be located quickly and
with ease. The most obvious change is in the organization of the material within each
chapter. The subject matter has been broken down into small units and important points
are emphasized in the text by boldface type. The narrative of the text has been devel-
oped in response to the most frequently asked questions from the general public gath-
ered during a series of presentations given on the opossum.
It is their hope that after becoming more familiar with the life and ways of the opossum
the public will begin to understand and appreciate that the opossum is not the fearsome,
repulsive creature they assume it to be. Rather it is one of the most fascinating mammals
native to the United States.
The common opossum or Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana Kerr) is one of the most
fascinating mammals of North America and has intrigued biologists since its initial obser-
vation by Western Europeans. Although a wealth of information has been published on the
opossum, these articles are scattered throughout a very diverse scientic literature with regard
both to discipline and time. Yet, in spite of its fascination by scientists, to the general public
the opossum is perhaps one of the most misunderstood mammals native to the United States.
This is due perhaps, at least in part, to its physical appearance. The opossum has a narrow,
tapered snout the jaws of which contain fty fairly large, pointed teeth. When encountered the
startled opossum will open its large mouth to expose these formidable teeth and growl to warn
potential threats or predators. Because of this behavior, which is in fact a bluff, the opossum
is considered by many to be a dangerous creature that is a threat to man and domestic animals.
In addition, a long, naked, rat-like tail characterizes the opossum. Indeed, because of this
feature, some believe the opossum to be a relative of the rat and therefore is a dirty, lthy crea-
ture. Thus, due primarily to its physical appearance, the opossum has acquired the reputation
of being a repulsive, aggressive, rat-like creature that should be avoided if possible and if it is
encountered should be killed like other vermin.
Generally, the only contact most individuals have with an opossum is a eeting glimpse in
a backyard or along a roadway during the late evening hours or perhaps as an encounter at
night if pets are being fed outside the household. However, the opossums witnessed by most
are generally road kill victims, the crushed bodies of which are found along roadways. The
appearance of their greasy, attened carcasses hasn’t helped their reputation or status among
mammals as far as the public is concerned. Indeed, the public has coined the phase “road
pizzas” for these unfortunate victims of the automobile. With the exception of Australia,
living marsupials are rarely exhibited in zoos or animal parks and this is particularly true of
the opossum. As a result, only a few have been privileged to examine this fascinating animal
We have written this short contemporary, but well illustrated book on the opossum specically
for those individuals with a limited scientic background but who are interested in learning
more about this much-maligned species. The reader of this book undoubtedly will be struck
by its format, which departs rather considerably from that of a typical book on wildlife. The
book is designed to be a useful text so that specic information with regard to the opossum
can be located quickly and with ease. Thus, the most obvious change is in the organization of
the material within each chapter. Here the subject matter has been broken down into smaller
units and important points are emphasized in the text by boldface type. The narrative of the
text has been developed around and in response to the most frequently asked questions from
the general public gathered during a series of lectures given on the opossum.
The initial chapter describes how the opossum ts into the current scientic classication
scheme and explains the need for such a system. This chapter then traces the discovery of
the opossum by Western Europeans and explains how the opossum came to be named. The
following chapters then describe the appearance of the opossum, trace its evolution, examine
its distribution, and present the most interesting aspects of its natural history. Later chapters
emphasize the opossum’s reproductive biology because it is this feature that make the opos-
sum unique in comparison to other mammals native to the United States. Throughout the text
the opossums interrelationship with man is considered as well as its economic and scientic
importance. The book nishes with a few tips on the temporary care of orphaned young
opossums as well as some common myths with regards to the opossum. It is our hope that
after becoming a bit more familiar with the life and ways of the opossum the public will begin
to understand and appreciate that the opossum is not the fearsome, repulsive creature they
assume it to be. But rather one of the most fascinating mammals native to the United States,
which is in fact, one that has a very gentle demeanor.
1. Classication and Its Meaning
Like most other known animals and plants, the opossum has been given two basic types of
names: a common name and a scientic name. Common names are usefully only within a
single language or dialect and therefore are of limited value. Furthermore, many living and/or
extinct organisms do not have common names in any language. An additional problem with
common names is that this type of nomenclature may be used to refer to more than one type
of closely related plant or animal. In contrast, scientic names are names applied to organ-
isms by scientists in order to communicate clearly and precisely across linguistic and cultural
boundaries. A complete scientic name consists of two parts that are called binomials (that
means two names). Sometimes the scientic name of an animal or plant is referred to as its bi-
nomial nomenclature. Scientic names usually are derived from Latin and only one scientic
name is ever applied to a given plant or animal. The scientic name is then followed by the
name or an abbreviation of the name of the individual who rst described and named the plant
or animal in question. Once named the plant or animal is given a position within one or more
standardized hierarchical systems of classication or categorization.
The opossum is a type of animal classied as a metatherian mammal or marsupial. The
complete classication scheme (according to the established rule of the international commis-
sion on Zoological nomenclature) of the opossum is as follows:
This method of scientic classication informs the reader that the opossum is an animal that
during development has a notochord (a stiff rod of tissue that provides the primary axial sup-
port for the back of the developing body; in the adult vestiges remain as part of the interver-
tebral disks) and a dorsally positioned central nervous system (Chordata). In addition, the
spinal cord portion of the central nervous system is contained within a segmented spinal
column or backbone made up of vertebrae (Vertebrata). Furthermore, the opossum is placed
into are large category of animals referred to as mammals. All mammals have three charac-
teristics not associated with other types of vertebrate animals: mammary glands, hair, and
three separate middle ear bones.
Mammals feed their newborn young with milk, a secretion produced by the mammary glands.
Milk is a nutritive uid rich in proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. The mammary glands gener-
ally are located on the ventral (under) surface and may number from two to a dozen or more
dependent on the mammalian species considered. They usually are located somewhere along
two ventral lines, called mammary lines, that extend from the chest area to the groin. Mam-
mary glands are modied sweat glands that develop from the epidermis of the skin and are
specialized for the production of milk. The root of the term Mammalia is in reference to this
All mammals have hair during some phase of their life cycle even though it may not be obvi-
ous in all adults. Mammalian hair consists of a protein called keratin and is the product of
hair follicles located in the skin.
Hair of mammals performs a variety of functions, which include thermal regulation, protec-
tion from abrasion, sensory functions, camouage or a conspicuous warning to predators, or
may be modied into quills, spines or horns to deter predators.
Mammals hear sounds in the environment by transmitting the vibrations of sound waves from
the eardrum to their inner ear mechanism (cochlea) by a chain of three tiny bones called os-
sicles (malleus, incus, and stapes) contained within a middle ear cavity. The malleus and incus
are derived from bones that form the jaw articulation of most other vertebrates.
Mammals can be further subdivided into three groups or Infraclasses: Prototheria, Metatheria,
and Eutheria. Prototherian mammals are egg-laying mammals that today are few in number
and restricted in distribution to Australia and New Guinea. The mammals that make up this
group are the duckbilled platypus and the echidnas. Metatherian mammals are generally
referred to as the marsupials and are grouped into seven orders, including Didelphimorphia,
which contains the majority of American marsupials.
The Metatherian mammals or marsupials consist of about 275 different species. Today,
marsupials are restricted in distribution to the Australasian region (about 200 species) and to
North, Central, and South America (about seventy-ve species). Eutherians form the largest
group (about 90% of all mammals) and are the mammals with which the general public is most
familiar. Cats, dogs, and farm mammals (cows, pigs, sheep, and horses) fall into this category.
The Subclass Theria is used to group together the two Infraclasses, Metatheria and Eutheria,
as therian mammals give birth to live young. This subclassication is used to distinguish live
bearing mammals from the egg laying mammals, the monotremes.
Marsupials differ from eutherian mammals in a number of subtle ways with regard to their
anatomy. For example, the seven or eight cheek teeth usually present on each side of the up-
per and lower jaws in most mammals are divided into three premolars and four molars in the
majority of metatherian mammals. This is in contrast to the four premolars and three molars
typical of eutherian mammals. This feature together with differences in tooth structure makes
it possible to distinguish between the jaw fragments of remains or fossils of eutherian and
marsupial mammals. The lower jaws of many marsupials do not have the same number of
incisors as the upper jaws. The pattern of tooth replacement, milk (deciduous) teeth by adult
(permanent) teeth, also differs between these two groups of mammals. In addition, marsupi-
als have a distinctive pair of epipubic (marsupium) bones attached to the pelvic girdle in both
sexes. An important and obvious difference between marsupials and eutherian mammals is
with regard to their reproductive biology. In marsupials the reproductive tract of the female
is fully doubled. They have two ovaries, two oviducts; two completely separate uteri and left
and right vaginae, which terminate in a common vestibule called the urogenital sinus. Birth
of the young takes place through a median canal that develops at the time of delivery called
the pseudovaginal canal. Marsupials do not have a vaginal delivery. But by far the most
conspicuous difference between eutherian mammals and marsupials is the degree of devel-
opment of their young at the time of birth. Marsupials are born after a very short gestation
period that is less or equal to the length of the estrus cycle. Compared to eutherian newborns,
newborn marsupials are embr yonic in appearance and organs are only in the initial stages
of development. In the majority of, but not all marsupials, most development takes place in a
pouch or marsupium that houses the mammary glands and the lactation period is prolonged.
The term Marsupialia (marsupials) is from the Latin word marsupium (meaning pouch) and
is in reference to those metatherian mammals that have a pouch. The term marsupium is
derived from the Greek word marsupion, which means, “little purse”. It should be emphasized,
however, that in the overwhelming majority of metatherian mammals native to Central and
South America a distinctive pouch may be absent or consist only of two thin longitudinal folds
of skin separated at either end. In these marsupials, the young rmly attach to the teats of the
associated mammary glands and hang suspended from the ventral surface of the mother, like
a cluster of grapes, without the protection of a pouch. Incredibly, once attached to a teat, most
survive this phase of their life cycle.
Thus, the reproductive strategy of marsupials is based primarily on the lactation (nurs-
ing) phase of their development and is in contrast to eutherian mammals where intrauterine
development of the young is the primary reproductive investment. Although the reproduc-
tive process of marsupials was at one time considered less advanced and not as efcient
when compared to eutherian mammals, it actually has a major advantage. Marsupials invest
relatively few resources in their young during the brief gestation period. Their major commit-
ment is during lactation, which is more easily terminated if adverse conditions arise. Thus, a
marsupial that loses its young is able to make a second attempt at reproduction more quickly
and will be in better physical condition than a eutherian mammal in a comparable situation.
This is particularly true for Didelphis, which normally produces two litters per year, and this
high birth rate not only assures the survival of this species but also has contributed to the
expansion of its range.
The common North American or Virginia opossum is placed in a taxonomic Family or
category known as the Didelphidae. There are approximately seventy-ve different species
(types) in this specic group or family, which are known as the didelphid marsupials. Di-
delphid marsupials are distributed widely in the Americas and attain maximum diversity in
tropical South America.
The scientic name or the Genus and species designation for the Virginia opossum is
Didelphis virginiana. The genus name Didelphis is derived from the Greek prex di (two) and
the Greek word delphys (womb) in reference to the reproductive tract of the female opos-
sum, which is paired in its entirety. The species name, virginiana, is the Latinized word for
“of Virginia” and refers to the state in America in which the rst specimen was collected and
described scientically by the Western Europeans.
However, even the establishment of the scientic name in the classication of this marsupial
species was not without controversy. Linnaeus, one of the most celebrated zoologists of that
time, misspelled the generic name which he developed to describe and classify this mammal,
substituting an “i” for the “y” if the Greek derivation had been accurately followed. He meant
to use the designation “a mammal with two uteri (di=two; delphys=uterus)” as the genus
classication for this animal. The genus name, Didelphis, stands today as Linnaeus originally
created it, as he developed the rst scientic classication scheme in which to place this newly
discovered mammal. It wasn’t until 1792 that Robert Kerr provided the rst accurate classical
description of the opossum that nally deter mined the ofcial scientic name of the Virginia
opossum, which is Didelphis virginiana Kerr. Current scientic evidence with regard to the
geographic distribution of the genus, Didelphis, suggests that this genus is actually made up
of four separate, distinct species: Didelphis virginiana of North and Central America (but
the only opossum native to the United States), Didelphis marsupialis of Central and South
America, Didelphis albiventris found in the highlands of South America, and Didelphis aurita
native to the Brazilian Atlantic forest.
Discovery and Naming
Although this animal was obviously known to the indigenous people of the Americas, the
opossum was the rst marsupial that European explorers encountered. The discovery of
this mammal and how it was named is in itself a very interesting story. In the late 1400s
the Spanish explorer Vicente Yáñez Pinzón (commander of Christopher Columbus ship, the
Niña) found a female opossum with young in her pouch after landing off the coast of Brazil.
Pinzón brought this strange mammal back with him to Spain and presented it at court to King
Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Spanish monarchs that ruled Spain at this time. The two
monarchs and those at court that examined the opossum were astonished that the pouch of
the opossum could be opened by nger pressure alone and that the pouch contained young
attached to teats. It would be over one hundred years later, in the early 1600s, before Captain
John Smith and other settlers of the Jamestown colony would write the rst English descrip-
tion of the North American opossum.
It was John Smith who gave this marsupial the common name “opossum” by which it is
known today. The term opossum is an anglicized construction of the American Indian (Al-
gonquian) word for this species “apasum” which means, “white animal”. The opossum rapidly
became the symbol of the natural wonders held by the American colonies and was dissected
and discussed at length by Europe’s leading scientists. At that time the opossum played an
important role during the period of transition from medieval to enlightenment in science.
However, some confusion exists even today with regard to the use of the common names
opossum and possum. The reason for such confusion once again can be traced historically to
the original naming of this group of mammals, the marsupials. In 1768 the British navigator,
Captain James Cook, set out on a ship, the Endeavour, and in his exploration of the Pacic
Ocean was the rst European to encounter Australia. On board was naturalist, Sir Joseph
Banks, who headed the scientic staff. It was Banks and his staff that applied the common
name opossum to several newly discovered Australian marsupials. Although these mammals
were indeed marsupials, they belonged to an entirely different group of marsupials that are
classied today as belonging to the Family: Phalangeridae. Several Australian marsupials fall
into this category and the vernacular name “possum” is used almost exclusively in the Aus-
tralasian region to refer to many members of this Family of marsupials. The term “phalanger”
refers to the adaptation of the rst two toes (digits or phalanges) that are opposable to the other
three toes of their fore paws. This adaptation aids these aboral marsupials in climbing trees.
To avoid confusion the “o” was dropped from opossum and the term possum used to refer to
the phalangers of the Australasian region.
Today, also using the common type of nomenclature, an adult male opossum is referred to as a
Jack, an adult female opossum is called a Jill. A pouch young opossum of either sex is called
a Joey, as are kangaroo pouch young. There is no name for a group of opossums such as a
“herd” of bison or “mobs” of kangaroos as adult opossums are primarily solitary animals.
2. General Appearance
Opossums are about the size of a large house cat with a weight that ranges between 1.8 and
5.5 kilograms (4 to 12 pounds). Opossums range in length between 609 mm and 914 mm (2 to
3 feet). Males are generally larger than females. The large range in size is thought to be due
to two different groups within the general opossum population. If, for example, two females
with litters of roughly the same age are caught during the early spring and their litters raised
in captivity the following observations have been made. The very large females tend to have
large offspring; the small females tend to have small offspring. Juveniles from the larger
female may be twice the size of those from the small female at weaning. Indeed, prior to this
observation it was assumed that the larger juveniles were older, either from the rst litter of
the current spring or may have even come from the previous year. This discrepancy in size
continues throughout their lifespan.
The head of the opossum is elongated with a slender snout that ends with a pink nose. The hair
on the face is short and white. Head markings represented by three dark streaks are some-
times present: one streak running along the midline of the crown and one running through
and behind each eye.
An example of a light, gray phase female opossum is shown in the left photograph. An example
of a dark phase male opossum is shown at the right. In addition to the overall dark appear-
ance, note the dark steaks of fur passing through the eyes and the dark streak running along
the midline of the head.
Opossums are characterized at a distance by a long, rat-like, tapered, scaly tail that bears only
a few scattered hairs. The tail usually measures less than 90% of head and body length. It is
usually covered in fur that is black in color at its base and naked along the rest of its length.
The latter region ranges in color from yellowish white to pink white.
Photographs of a female opossum climbing among the branches of a tree. Note in particular
how the opossum uses its prehensile tail to wrap tightly around a branch to provide stability
and aid in climbing. Note also the use of the hind feet, which are able to tightly grasp branches.
Because of the opposable large toe, the hind foot is used very much like a human hand.
A photograph of an opossum tail illustrates its rough, scaly appearance. Although usually de-
scribed as hairless, tiny light colored hairs do occur between the patches of epidermal keratin.
The region of the tail nearest the body is usually pigmented and covered by fur.
The opossum (left) can use its tail to wrap around larger structures to aid in climbing. This
opossum is climbing down a tall pole using it tail much as a telephone lineman uses a safety belt
when climbing. A gray phase juvenile opossum (right) eating a grasshopper it has just caught.
Note the dexterity of the digits of the forepaws to hold its prey while feeding.
The opossum to the left was photographed while walking along the branch of a tree. This pho-
tograph illustrates that the digits of the forepaw can easily be spread over a 180-degree area.
The ability to spread the digits over such a wide area enables the opossum to rmly grasp and
hold prey items when feeding or to rmly grasp branches when climbing as shown in the pho-
tograph to the right.
The tail is prehensile (able to grasp) and is used as a safety device when climbing. The opos-
sum can hang and support its own weight with the prehensile tail, but only for a short period
of time. During walking or running the tail functions in balancing.
In addition, there have been several observations of opossums carrying bundles of grasses,
leaves and other matter within a coil of their tails as they transport these materials to line dens
or temporary sleeping areas. Thus, opossums appear to have the ability to voluntarily control
the use of their tails to accomplish specic tasks. As a result of such voluntary behavior, the
opossums’ tail is considered by many as a fth appendage or hand.
Opossums have a large mouth that can be opened quite wide and the jaws have more teeth
than most other mammals. The jaws contain fty teeth with the following dental formula:
I5/4, C1/1, Pm3/3, M4/4 X 2. This formula means that the upper jaw contains ten incisors, two
large canines, six premolars, and eight molars. The lower jaw contains eight incisors, two
large canines, six premolars, and eight molars. This dental formula is diagnostic for all opos-
sums of Didelphidae. The last premolar is the only deciduous tooth of the opossum. In other
words, the opossum has only one set of teeth (the permanent or adult teeth) except for the last
premolar, which has a preceding baby (deciduous) tooth that is lost and later replaced by a
permanent tooth. All the teeth are rooted and sharp. The molars are multicuspid and indicative
of their omnivorous diet.
Opossums have large, well-developed salivary glands that like other mammals drain into the
oral cavity or mouth. These glands produce saliva important for the digestive process and
keeping the mouth clean. Opossums salivate or drool considerably, so much so, that saliva
literally drips from their mouths most of the time.
The snout has long whiskers or vibrissae. The vibrissae are arranged primarily into two
groups on each side of the face. One group is located in the cheek area; the other vibrissae
are located on the snout. The base of each vibrissa, located deep within the skin, is provided
with an elaborate network of touch-sensitive nerve endings that are extremely sensitive to the
slightest touch. Each vibrissa of the opossum is capable of independent movement and used
to provide sensory input from the external environment particularly around the region of the
head. Touching the vibrissae also sets off appropriate defensive or avoidance reactions.
The opossum does not see well as can be demonstrated by passing an object in front of its
head but within reach. The opossum usually will not snap at or avoid the object. If, however,
one of the vibrissae is touched, the reaction is incredibly swift. The vibrissae are not unique to
opossums and are highly developed in other mammalian species.
The eyes of the opossum are black and prominent and appear somewhat exophthalmic (pop
eyed) reminiscent of those of a mouse. Captive animals that are fat, usually because of over-
feeding, often appear cross-eyed due to accumulation of fat behind the eyeball. The jet-black
appearance of the eyes is due to the fact that the eye is extremely dilated and primarily a large
pupil characterizes the front of the eye. The iris is usually not seen except if the opossum is
examined in direct sunlight. It is believed that the wide-open pupil is an adaptation of this spe-
Close inspection of the head of an opossum illustrates its elongated snout that ends with a pink
nose. The hair on the face is short and white. The snout has long vibrissae (whiskers) arranged
in two groups on each side of the face. The bases of the vibrissae are provided with numerous
touch-sensitive nerve endings that are extremely sensitive to the slightest touch. Eyes of the
opossum are prominent, somewhat exophthalmic (pop eyed) and black in color. The ears are
short, hairless and leathery in texture.
Two young juvenile opossums on a tree limb.
The individual toward the rear has its head
tipped upward to sniff the air and get a better
olfactory reading of its environment. Note the
large, thin, hairless ears that are leathery in
consistency. The majority of the ear is black
in color and tipped with a pinkish-white band
of variable width. The white tipped band of
the ears of the opossum to the rear is promi-
nent whereas the ears of the opossum in the
foreground show only a small area tipped by
white. The ears of some opossums are entirely
black. These opossums are littermates and il-
lustrate the biological variation that occurs
with regard to ear markings.
cies to its nocturnal (nighttime) habits. Vision of the opossum does not appear to be very acute
as it responds poorly to most visual stimuli.
The external ears (pinnae) are short and hairless, thin and leathery in consistency, and bluish
black in color. They are often tipped with a pinkish-white band of variable width. However,
the ears of some opossums may be entirely black in color.
The ears of opossums in the norther n regions of their range often appear ragged due to frost-
bite. The thin membranous ears are folded when sleeping. When aroused the ears may remain
wrinkled, but quickly smooth out, as the opossum becomes active. Opossums are extremely
sensitive to sound from its environment as can be demonstrated by simply snapping a nger.
The body of the opossum is stocky or stout supported by relatively short legs. The hind legs
are slightly longer than the forelegs. The fur tends to be darker on the front and hind legs and
the toes are often white. The ve toes on the forefeet have nails (claws). The forefeet are quite
dexterous, allowing the opossum to grasp branches or other objects and hold food items while
The naked palmar surface (left) of an opossum forepaw shows six tori separated by a deep
midline groove. The pollex (thumb) bears a nail and diverges much less than does the hallux of
the hind paw. Note that the central digit is in line with the midline groove. These structural fea-
tures enable the opossum to grasp and spread the digits over 180 degrees. The dorsal surface
of the hind paw (right) illustrates the sharply diverging hallux (big toe), which lacks a nail. The
remaining four digits of the hind paw have nails. The back of the paw is furred to the base of the
digits. (Cutts and Krause, Anat.Anz. 154: 1983).
feeding. The hind feet of the opossum are unusual in that the big toe or hallux stands out
in that it looks like a thumb. The big toe is opposable and can be used to touch the tips of the
other four toes. Thus, the opossum’s hind foot is shaped somewhat like a human hand or a
primate foot with an opposable big toe. Primates, together with the opossums, are the only
mammals with opposable rst toes. The big toe lacks a nail or claw but the other four digits of
the hindfoot have nails. The nails or claws of both the forefeet and hind feet are non-retract-
able, a feature that makes it possible for the opossum to pick up objects or grasp thin branches
better than most other mammals. The nails of the opossum have never been observed to be
used as weapons as those of cats or some other group of mammals. The hind feet are used for
grasping and holding onto things as the opossum moves about, particularly when climbing in
trees. This adaptation together with the use of the prehensile tail makes the opossum an adept
tree climber for both gathering food and escaping from predators. Friction ridges or nger-
prints are present on the plantar (under) surfaces of both the forefeet and hind feet that aid in
providing a rmer grip.
The plantar (under) surface of the hind paw (left) is hairless and shows ve tori separated by
grooves. Note the prominent groove that separates the hallux and its torus from those of the
remainder of the paw. The plantar surface of the hind paw (right) has been inked to illustrate
the pattern of dermatoglyphs (friction ridges or ngerprints) on the tori and digital pads. The
friction ridges provide additional traction for grip when climbing or holding an object. (Cutts
and Krause, Anat.Anz. 154: 1983).
The feet of the opossum are plantigrade, that is, shaped so that the opossum walks on the sole
of its foot (plantar surface) with the heel touching the ground rather than on its toes as is true
of many mammals. The planter surface of each foot is without fur and naked. The plantigrade
type of movement is readily apparent if one examines the tracks (footprints) of an opossum.
Opossum tracks occur in pairs with each pair having the imprint of one front and one rear foot
close together. The ve toes of the front feet are usually spread wide apart. The most charac-
teristic imprint is that of the hind foot and is unlike the track of any other mammal native to
the United States. The imprint looks very much like a small hand made it. The imprint of the
hallux of the hind foot is perpendicular to the direction of travel. Dependent on the position
of the tail at the time the tracks are made, it may or may not leave drag marks. The opossum
walk on the ground or a surface has been described as a waddle but is, in actual fact, a trot.
The faster the trot the more exaggerated the waddle.
The coat (fur or pelage) and skin color of opossums varies considerably from different
regions of North America. In northern regions, opossums have a relatively thick undercoat,
which is white nearest the skin, and is usually tipped with black. The underfur is overlain with
a thin covering of pale guard hairs giving the majority of opossums a gray, grizzled appear-
ance. Opossums with this type of coloration are called gray phase opossums. The guard hairs
are thought to be protective and reduce the amount of abrasion on the underfur that functions
to keep the opossum dry and warm. Because of the oiliness of the important dense undercoat,
rain or mist generally does not wet the opossum’s skin. The guard hairs are usually tipped
white. The greater the extent of the black color along the shaft of the guard hair the darker the
Footprints (tracks) of the left hind foot and
forefoot of the opossum. (Modied from D.
Hunsaker, The Biology of Marsupials, Aca-
demic Press, 1977).
Opossum tracks occur in pairs with each pair consisting of the characteristic rear footprint and
a footprint of the forepaw from the same side. The two imprints of each pair are always close
together and may overlap. Each pair is separated by several inches. How far they are separated
is dependent on the size of the opossum and how fast it was traveling.
opossum. If the black extends more than two-thirds down the guard hairs and hairs forming
the undercoat, the opossum is much darker in color and referred to as a dark phase opossum.
Opossums from the southern regions of the United States generally have a sparser, dark un-
derfur and show a greater number of dark guard hairs giving the population of animals in this
area a darker appearance. It is estimated that in the Deep South the dark phase opossums out-
number the gray phase about ve to one. Gray and dark phase opossums may occur within the
same litter. Pure white opossums with black eyes and ears also have been observed. Likewise,
typical pink-eyed albino opossums have been found but are a rare occurrence. A cinnamon
phase opossum also has been described and is thought to be a genetic variation as this phase
is reported to lack the overlying guard hairs.
Eyes at Night
The eyes of the opossum and other nocturnal mammals “glow” or are reective in the dark
if illuminated by the headlights of an automobile or some other bright light. This is due to a
structural adaptation within the eyeball of these creatures to improve their night vision. The
superior (upper) half of the opossum retina is unusual in that it represents a modication of
the pigmented portion of the retina called the reective tapetum lucidum. In the tapetal
region of the opossum retina, the epithelial cells of the pigment layer are enlarged, relatively
free of melanosomes (black pigment granules) and instead are lled with reective lipoidal
(cholesterol-containing) spheres. Similar retinal tapeta are found in reptiles and sh but are
not usually associated with mammalian eyes. The tapetum acts as a light-reective surface
that reects light back to the photoreceptors of the retina to enhance vision that occurs under
conditions of poor illumination. The tapeta of eutherian mammals such as ungulates (cattle,
deer, and sheep) are brous whereas in carnivores it is more cellular in composition. How-
ever, in both instances, the tapetum is located behind the retina rather than being a part of the
retina as it is in the opossum. The tapetum of the opossum reects a yellow/green color when
activated by light at night.
Construction of the Pouch
The pouch or marsupium is often considered to be a hallmark feature of marsupials; however,
most marsupial species from the Americas lack a well-dened pouch. The female Virginia
opossum has a well-developed pouch or marsupium on her ventral (under) surface that usually
contains thirteen nipples arranged in two arches of six with one nipple located centrally. It is
within the protection of this pouch that the female opossum carries her offspring during the
rst ninety days following their birth. The overall dimensions of the pouch change depend-
ing on the reproductive status of the female. When young are absent it is relatively small and
shallow in appearance. The space within the pouch expands with the rst litter to accommo-
date the developing young. Near the end of lactation it can be distended to a considerable size
and it may house as many as a dozen rat-sized young. The expansion is temporary and after
weaning the pouch becomes much reduced in size but never returns to the original dimensions
prior to the rst pregnancy. The construction of the pouch is basically an invagination of skin
through a sheet of cutaneous abdominal musculature called the panniculus carnosus. This
sheet of voluntary muscle occurs in the skin of many mammals and its action readily seen
in animals such as horses when it is contracted in an attempt to shake off ies. The thirteen
mammary glands and teats associated with the female opossum are located in the dorsal
wall of the pouch integument (skin) next to the abdomen. The panniculus carnosus muscle
is well developed in the pouch region of the female opossum and can be subdivided into
three regions: the pars dorsalis, the pars thoracoabdominalis, and the pars pudenda. The pars
pudendal subdivision lies beneath the skin of the abdominal midline and in the female passes
around the opening of the pouch. Some of its muscle bers run between the two layers of skin
Four photographic illustrations of the pouch (marsupium) of the Virginia opossum. The upper
left gure shows the closed pouch opening located on caudal ventral surface of the body wall.
The pouch orice shown at upper right has been opened by gentle nger pressure exposing
young opossums contained within the pouch. The gure at the lower left illustrates the lips of
the pouch and the amber color of fur within the pouch. The color is the result of secretions of
sudoriferous (modied sweat) glands within the pouch. A litter of larger pouch young (lower
right) within a pouch illustrates that the pouch expands considerably to accommodate the size
of the litter.
forming the edges of the pouch wall to insert into the base of the skin that borders the opening
of the pouch. The female opossum can voluntarily close or open the entrance to the pouch by
contracting the skeletal muscle bers forming the pars pudenda and this region is often called
the sphincter of the pouch. The skeletal muscle bers do not extend into the region of the
mammary glands. A pouch is absent in the male opossum.
The pars pudendum is highly developed in the semi-aquatic water opossums (Chironectes)
of South America that are the only marsupials adapted to an aquatic environment. They have
webbed hind feet and a waterproof pouch. The mother can go swimming with young in her
pouch when feeding on craysh, shrimp, and sh because of the well-developed sphincter
muscle in the margin of the pouch. The contraction of this muscle plus the secretion of glands
in the skin located along the lips of the pouch coverts the pouch into a watertight compart-
ment. In addition to mammary glands, the skin lining the opossum pouch interior contains
hair (fur), sebaceous (oil) glands, and apocrine sweat (modied scent) glands. Both types of
glands increase in size or hypertrophy with the advance of pregnancy. The reddish oily secre-
tion of the apocrine sweat glands in the pouch may provide olfactory cues that guide young
opossums to the safety of the pouch after birth and/or may even have bactericidal properties
that keeps microbial growth within the pouch in check as has been shown in an Australian
marsupial, the quokka.
The skeleton of the opossum has a pair of marsupial or epipubic bones that extends forward
from the pelvic girdle. Although these bones were earlier thought to be a supportive element
for the pouch, the epipubic bones are now thought to act as supporting structures for the
ventral abdominal body wall. Both male and female opossums have epipubic bones. The only
other mammals that have epipubic bones associated with their skeletons are the monotremes.
3. Evolutionary History
At the present time fossilized remains of marsupials have been found in Africa, Antarctica,
Australia, Europe, North America, South America, and Asia. The “opossum-like” fossil
marsupials found in the Americas are of particular interest to scientists because some of the
features associated with these fossils are thought to approximate those of early therian mam-
mals. It is believed that both marsupial and eutherian mammals arose simultaneously from a
common ancestor sometime during the Late Jurassic or Early Cretaceous periods. This therian
mammal represents the ancestor of all metatherian mammals. The early stock of marsupials
that arose from this creature gave rise to the current diverse populations of marsupials found
in the Americas and Australasia today. It should be emphasized that very large gaps exist in
the current known fossil record and that the precise details of the origins of these mammals
and where they originated should be discussed with great caution. Being aware of this limita-
tion and based on the fossil information that does exist, the last common ancestor of marsupi-
als and eutherian mammals is thought to have lived at least 130 million years ago. Some of
the oldest marsupial fossils found thus far are from the Upper Cretaceous Milk River Forma-
tion found in Montana and the southern most portion of the Province of Alberta in western
Canada. These marsupial fossils are estimated to be about 110 million years old. Recently,
fossil marsupials approximately of the same age were found in Bryce Canyon National Park
(Dakota Formation) in southwestern Utah. Most are astonished to learn that The Milk River
marsupials lived nearly 45 million years before extinction of the dinosaurs and prior to the age
of mammals. The Cenozoic Era is often referred to as “the age of mammals” and encompasses
the last 65 million years of earth history. However, it should be pointed out that fossils from
mammal-like vertebrates have been shown to exist in the Jurassic, which is over 145 million
years ago. The early marsupials were small animals and thought to have resembled members
of the modern opossum-like marsupials (the Didelphidae) found in South America as well as
the larger Virginia opossum. The extinct Milk River and Dakota Formation marsupials mark
the beginning of a record of early marsupials in North America and several specimens have
been found and documented. Most were found in the eastern most Rocky Mountain region
and adjacent parts of the Great Plains. A few have been found in Baja California, Mexico; the
only early marsupial fossils discovered along the Pacic Rim of North America.
The recent discovery (2003) of an intact marsupial fossil called Sinodelphys szalayi in the
fossil beds of China’s northeastern Liaoning province strongly suggests that marsupials
originated in a northern continent; either present day North America or Asia. Sinodelphys
was a mouse-sized marsupial with a long tail that lived 125 million years ago. It is by far the
oldest marsupial fossil discovered to date. The discovery of this marsupial suggests that the
divergence between metatherian and eutherian mammals occurred much earlier than origi-
To better understand how marsupials evolved and found their way to various continents, one
must realize that the major landmasses of the world have not always been where they are
today. At one time (about 200 million years ago) the continents were joined together in a
landmass called Pangaea. Over time Pangaea separated into two large land masses: a north-
ern land mass known as Laurasia (which would become North America, Europe, and Asia);
and a southern land mass known as Gondwanaland (which would become South America,
Africa, Madagascar, the Indian subcontinent, Antarctica, and Australia). As Gondwanaland
separated over the next 100 million years, Africa and India moved northward while Antarctica
and Australia remained connected to South America as a single landmass. This entire region
continued to enjoy a temperate climate and as a result land animals are thought to have moved
back and forth between what would become South America, Antarctica, and Australia until
the early Tertiary.
It should also be remembered that today’s oceans did not form until the Jurassic. The South
Atlantic Ocean did not begin to form until during the Cretaceous; the North Atlantic Ocean
did not form until the old Tertiary. This means that South America and Africa were still con-
nected together during the older Cretaceous period and North America was still connected
with Europe during the early Tertiary. The fossil evidence for marsupial opossums in the early
tertiary of North Africa suggests that there may have been a direct distribution of marsupi-
als from South America to Africa. Current fossil evidence suggests that marsupial mammals
arose in North America or Asia and then spread to Europe and South America and from South
America to Africa. After the separation of these continents from one another, the marsupial
species occupying North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia became extinct. The only early
marsupials that survived were found in what would become South and Central America. Even-
tually the continents forming Gondwanaland separated from one another. Australia moved
away from the Gondwanaland landmass of Antarctica and South America between 38 and 45
million years ago. As the landmass separated Australia took with it Gondwanaland animals
and plants which then developed in isolation for about 30 million years. Some of the early
Gondwanaland marsupials evolved into the 200 different species of marsupials associated
with Australia today as well as several extinct forms including the Mega-fauna. Thus, the
native (current) marsupials and monotremes of Australia are the descendants of similar mam-
mals from Gondwanaland. Indeed, not only have the fossilized remains of marsupials been
found on Antarctica but also those of large form of duckbilled platypus have recently been
discovered near the tip of South America in present day Argentina. This duckbilled platypus
lived about 16 million years ago. These ndings provide additional scientic support that the
native animals of Australia took their origins in what is now known as South America.
The movement of continents “plate tectonics” in the dispersal of marsupials is further compli-
cated by the global rise and fall of sea levels between continents, particularly North and South
America. Ones species of marsupial later re-invaded North America from South America
as these two major continents were reunited by the Central American land bridge. That spe-
cies would become known as the Virginia or North American opossum (Didelphis virgin-
According to the continental drift theory, the super continent of Pangaea began to fragment
about 225 million years ago eventually forming the continents recognized today. (Courtesy of
J.M. Watson, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey).
Many of the early marsupials were formidable and fossils of a group of giant marsupials
referred to as the Mega-fauna of Australia have been found. Many of these giants were larger
varieties of several of the marsupials alive today. For example, there were cow-sized wombats,
rhinoceros-sized palochestids characterized by a tapir-like trunk, marsupial lions, and giant
kangaroos. Some of these giants continued to exist until about 50,000 years ago and were still
living after the arrival of humans on the continent of Australia.
A Living Fossil?
The family Didelphidae is a current classication scheme that contains a sizable array of liv-
ing and fossil opossum-like marsupials from the Americas. Some of the living taxa forming
this group are thought to have retained features of the early ancestral forms of the Metathe-
ria. The most ancient known marsupial opossums are from the Upper Cretaceous of North
America and China’s northeastern Liaoning province. The opossum-like marsupials disap-
peared from North America and Europe in the Miocene (22-5 million years ago) and from
Africa presumably as early as the old Tertiar y. They survived until recent times only in South
and Central America from where they migrated to the north. The new dispersal of opossums
to North America occurred not before the recent Pleistocene (1.8 million- 11,000 years ago)
with the Genus Didelphis. The earliest marsupials are believed to have resembled members of
the modern opossum family, Didelphidae, including Didelphis virginiana. Because many of
the earliest known marsupials are believed to have resembled Didelphis, which has retained
several features of these early marsupials, it is often referred to as a living fossil. In spite of
retaining some of the primitive features of the earlier forms, however, Didelphis virginiana
Kerr is perhaps one of the most recent marsupials to evolve.
Arrival in North America
It is surprising to some that the Virginia opossum did not originate or evolve in North Amer-
ica even though fossil remains of a smaller, similar appearing or closely related marsupial
species have been found in both the United States and Canada. Instead, the direct ancestors of
the Virginia opossum are believed to have evolved in South America.
During the Pliocene Epoch, about two to ve million years ago, the North and South Ameri-
can landmass were reunited after being separated for several millions of years. During this
period of separation the early marsupials of South America evolved and diversied into a rich
variety of species. As animals (eutherian mammals) that evolved in North America invaded
South America, a single South American marsupial (thought to be similar to Didelphis marsu-
pialis or a closely related species) moved north. This marsupial continued to expand its range
northward and in less then one million years diverged into what is recognized today as the
Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana Kerr.
It is only during this last century that the Virginia opossum has expanded its range into
southern Canada and the pacic states. The ability of the opossum to expand its range dur-
ing the last one hundred years to the Far West and northern regions of the United States and
into southern Canada can be directly linked to the inadvertent or deliberate intervention of
humans. Because of its adaptability to eat almost anything and create a den almost anywhere,
the opossum has been able to expand its range considerably since the colonialization of North
America. Prior to European settlement in North America, the Virginia opossum was found
primarily in the southeastern United States and based on studies of several archeological sites,
was a food source for the indigenous people that inhabited this region. Primarily cold winter
temperatures limited the northward expansion of the opossum and its westward expansion
was limited by arid conditions. As farms, villages, and small towns were established, the
opossum was able to adapt to human habitation and actually use its ability to live in the shad-
ows of modern man to extend its range into southern Canada and along the Pacic coast. The
opossum is able to feed on a variety of foods including spillage and/or left over food provided
for domestic animals and pets as well as human garbage items. Its ability to use portions of
human dwellings and buildings (attics, spaces between walls, barns) in establishing temporar y
dens was also helpful in expanding its range into the Northernmost extremes of its range. The
more recent extension of its range also is undoubtedly related to the development of the auto-
mobile and the elaborate roadway system within North America.
As the speeds for travel increased so did the number of animals killed on the roadways,
thereby providing an abundant food source for this adaptable, opportunistic feeder. Indeed, it
is usually at night, along a roadway, that the majority of people actually see a live opossum
caught in the headlights of a vehicle. The reason opossums are often seen with greater fre-
quency along roadways is because they are feeding on other animals (reptiles, birds, and mam-
mals) killed while crossing or traveling along the roadways. The opossum has a keen sense
of smell and is searching for carrion on which to feed. Inadvertently, the opossum also may
become a victim if startled while feeding or searching for food by a fast approaching automo-
bile and temporarily blinded by the headlights. More often than not the opossum seems to dart
into the pathway of oncoming trafc and becomes a casualty of the roadway.
The opossum has recently expanded its range into the Great Plains as far as southern Min-
nesota, southeastern South Dakota, and eastern Nebraska and Kansas. In this region of the
United States they are restricted primarily, but not exclusively to, the drainages of major rivers
such as the Mississippi, Missouri, North Platte, and Niobrara and their tributaries.
Perhaps the most interesting story is how the opossum came to California and the Pacic
Coast, expanding its range as far north as southern British Columbia. Before human interven-
tion, the hostile environments associated with the mountain ranges and surrounding deserts
kept the opossum from spreading to the West Coast. However, in 1890 the Virginia opossum
was introduced into southern California near Los Angeles. This population became well
established and expanded into adjacent Ventura County by 1924. Immigrants, originally from
Tennessee, imported an additional group of live opossums from that state into central Califor-
nia (near San Jose) in 1910. The live opossums were sent as food items as individuals from this
region of the United States considered opossums a delicacy at the time. Several escaped their
hutches over time and provided one of the initial populations of opossums into this region of
California. Another individual introduced an additional documented group of opossums from
South Carolina to a farm near Visalia, California, in an attempt to raise opossums as fur-bear-
ers. Opossum fur at that time was being used as an inexpensive fur trim for some garments
and hats. After several years of failure, the fur farmer abandoned this enterprise and many of
the animals were simply released into the surrounding countryside. Since this initial introduc-
tion, the opossum has prospered along the coast and expanded its range over a considerable
area of California, in particular those regions associated with agriculture.
At the time the opossum was rapidly expanding its range in California (the early 1900s), the
Virginia opossum was also introduced into the states of Oregon and Washington. Between
1910 and 1920 opossums were released as liberated pets or some kept as exotic pets simply es-
caped. Today the range of the opossum extends up the coast of the western United States into
southern British Columbia. In several counties of north central California, opossums are quite
abundant and frequently seen as road-kill victims on the roadways.
Likewise, the opossum has been introduced into the arid states of Arizona, New Mexico,
Colorado, and Idaho by humans for sport and is now continuing to expand its range in some
regions of the southwest where water is available.
The success of the opossum in continuing to expand its range in North America is due in part
to its adaptability to several types of habitat. The opossum is considered a generalist rather
than a specialist adapted to a specic environment, and therefore very adaptable to changing
conditions and opportunities that it continues to exploit. The range of the opossum seems to
be restricted only by a lack of water and extremely cold temperatures of long duration.
4. Natural History
The Virginia opossum is the only marsupial native to the United States. The current distri-
bution of the opossum is over most of the United States except for some of the northern and
western states as shown on the following map.
Home Range (Territory)
The Virginia opossum is not territorial in the strict sense of the term, but represents a solitary
species that excludes other individuals from its area when they are encountered. An opos-
sum’s territory is highly variable and depends on the availability of food and on an individual
The approximate distribution of the Virginia opossum in North America with regard to time.
(Modied from D. Hunsaker, The Biology of Marsupials, Academic Press, 1977).
opossum tendency to wander. They generally have elongated rather than circular territories as
most follow the edges of streams or rivers. If food is plentiful the range be may very small. If
food is scarce the opossum may travel up to two miles in search of food. The average home
range of an adult male opossum is about 300 acres that it appears to wander through during
its lifetime. That of the female opossum is thought to be considerably smaller, about 150 acres,
and the boundaries more permanent. Individual ranges tend to overlap considerably. The life
of the adult male is totally solitary and is in contrast to the female, which has young with her
during much of the year. A late, second litter of young may stay with the female during the
winter until the following spring.
The Virginia opossum is primarily a terrestrial species and spends the majority of its time
on the ground. The opossum’s preferred habitat is deciduous woodlands in areas close to
water. However, opossums are extremely adaptable creatures and are often found in prai-
ries, marshes, and farmlands. They generally keep to the woody vegetation along rivers and
streams, a behavior that has permitted them to move into treeless grasslands and some desert
environments. They often will live in very close proximity to human habitation. This adapt-
able mammal is very successful at surviving or even thriving not only in agricultural areas but
also in residential and suburban areas. Here it adapts buildings, woodpiles, or accumulations
of other materials as potential sites to den and is able to feed on human refuse or food pro-
vided for pets or domestic animals.
Nests or Dens
The opossum is primarily a nocturnal mammal (active at night) and forages for food shortly
after dark, a behavior that continues until dawn. However, opossums may become active dur-
ing daylight hours during cold weather (winter usually) when food is more difcult to obtain
and its metabolic need is greater. The opossum, as is the case for most other mammals active
during cold weather, needs a greater caloric intake in order to survive. Like most noctur-
nal animals, the opossum must build a rough nest or nd a den in which to rest during the
daylight hours. Depending on the location, the opossum den can take a variety of forms: an
abandoned burrow or underground tunnel, cavities in hollow trees, abandoned squirrel nests,
crevices in rocks, or crawl spaces under houses, in attics or in some other dark, hidden spaces
of buildings. Opossums do not dig their own burrows, but occupy abandoned burrows of other
animals. They will seek some quite dark space that is dry. The dens are most often temporary
but if a food source is nearby may be occupied for several weeks. A single opossum may have
several dens that it will use periodically. Females with young tend to be the exception to this
behavior and use the same den site for several weeks at a time. The dens usually are lined by
grass or thin twigs mixed with dry leaves. In warmer months its construction is similar to that
of a bird’s nest. In the cooler months of fall and winter its construction resembles a hollow
sphere and is similar in appearance to a mouse or squirrel nest. There have been numerous
observations of opossums gathering denning materials. The materials are gathered using the
mouth and forepaws, then passed to the rear under the abdomen to the hind feet, which the
opossum uses to organize the gathered materials into a bundle. The bundle is then placed in a
Martha Stech of Ashland, Missouri, took this award-winning photograph entitled “Caught in
the Act”. Note the luxuriant, well-groomed coat of this fall/winter opossum raiding a bird feeder
to eat the oil-rich sunower seeds and corn.
loop of the tail and the prehensile tail used to drag the material to the opossum den. It should
be remembered that Didelphis virginiana is somewhat nomadic, moving between old denning
sites or constr ucting new ones as the opossum wanders through its territory.
When foraging at night the opossum keeps its nose to the ground, relying primarily on smell
and touch. Vision does not appear to play a large role in locating food during their night
prowling although they can see distant objects. The opossum is omnivorous, consuming both
animal and plant material. Its diet includes a variety of insects, earthworms, slugs, snails,
craysh, snakes and lizards, frogs, small rodents (primarily mice and rats), young rabbits,
small birds, eggs, grasses, vegetables, fruits, ber ries, grains, human garbage, and carrion
(dead animal material). Opossums seem to have a preference for sweet items such as various
fruits and berries when available. The opossum is an opportunistic feeder and will eat what-
ever is available in its environment at a given time and its diet will change with the seasons.
Olfaction (the sense of smell) of the opossum is keen and clearly important in prey and/or the
location of food.
Although the types of food the opossum eats are highly varied, they must be abundant and
closely spaced to support a signicant population. If food resources become depleted in one
area, the opossum simply will expand its ter ritory or move to a new area.
The opossum has large, well-developed jaw muscles that make up much of the mass of the
head in this species. The jaws are capable of generating incredible forces and are used in
crushing the shells of snails and bones of small mammals and birds. Opossums have an
unusual need for calcium in their diet and often consume the entire skeletal remains (particu-
larly cottontail rabbits killed along roadways) of animals it encounters to satisfy this dietary
requirement. If the exterior of an opossum skull is examined, a large crest will be found that
courses down the midline on the top of the skull. This large crest serves as an attachment
point for much of the jaw muscle mass and is indicative of just how well developed the jaw
musculature is in this particular species.
An additional characteristic, as well as of most marsupials, is a projection called the angular
process on the posterior margin of the lower jaw. This process curves inwards in marsupi-
als but is directed straight back in eutherian mammals. The angular process functions as
an attachment site for muscles of mastication. Interestingly, despite the large size of the jaw
musculature, it has been clearly established that the opossum chews on one side of its mouth
at a time. A large fascial area and a relatively small cranial cavity characterize the remainder
of the opossum skull.
Opossums mark or announce their presence in a region or territory with urine, droppings, and
saliva and with secretions from glands located in different regions of the skin. Adult male
opossums will mark structures in their territories by licking and rubbing the neck and head
region against them. Olfactory cues from
secretions of glands within the skin of neck
and head region as well as within the saliva
identify the presence of a specic male in a
given area. Olfactory perception by female
opossums is highly developed and can be
used to identify individual males by such
marked objects. Male opossums show de-
nite aggressive responses when encounter-
ing such “signposts” of another male. These
observations suggest that pheromones serve
to keep other opossums informed of the
presence of a specic male in a given area.
Because home ranges of opossums are so
overlapping, it is believed that such sign-
posts may be used to attract females rather
than repel competitive males in the same
territory. Female opossums also have been
observed marking structures by licking and
rubbing the head and neck region against
them. What inuence such markings have
on male behavior is unknown. Supraster-
nal glands, paracloacal glands, and glands within the footpads have been examined in the
opossum. The suprasternal gland region of the opossum is located along the ventral midline
between the neck and sternum. The distribution of glands in this area is easily recognized
in adult males during the breeding season by a diamond shaped patch of fur stained either a
bright yellow or a light amber-orange color. The stained fur is the result of secretions from the
underlying glands. The coloration of fur over the suprasternal gland area does not occur until
puberty and is thought to signal the onset of testosterone secretion. Coloration of a similar
region of fur in the adult female opossum is faint or absent.
Both sexes do have, however, a prominent pair of paracloacal glands located along the lateral
walls of the cloaca. Each pair consists of two parts: a central storage bladder and surround-
ing sudoriferous (scent) glands that drain into the former. A single long duct links the storage
bladder to the cloaca. The orices of these ducts are easily identied when handling opossums
due the expression of stored secretory material. The substance secreted is a pasty, pea-green
uid that has a musky odor. The release of secretory material from the paracloacal gland
complex appears to be, at least in part, under voluntary control and occurs primarily when
opossums are handled. What role these glands play with regard to the scent marking of an
opossums territory is unknown.
The suprasternal gland patch is indicated by the
yellow stained fur overlying the glands of this
young male opossum captured and released in
An interesting observation that several individuals have witnessed is that if captive adult fe-
male opossums are housed in outdoor pens during the breeding season, they will soon attract
males to the area in which they are held. Whether the attraction of males to these females is
due to a form of vocalization or to pheromones is unknown.
Most witnessed vocalizations of opossums have occur red during aggressive encounters
between adults and consist primarily of a hiss, growl, or screech dependent on the intensity of
the encounter. An unusual sound, a metallic click, is also used during non-aggressive encoun-
ters and is most often witnessed when a male is signaling a female or vise-versa during the
breeding season. Striking two large glass marbles together can create a very similar sound
that imitates this vocalization. Pouch young opossums often make a somewhat similar vocal-
ization (thought to be a distress call) to signal the mother when they are away from the safety
of the pouch.
Hibernation is one of the ways many small and medium-sized mammals in north-temper-
ate regions have solved the problem of low temperatures and winter scarcity of food. True
hibernators, such as chipmunks and woodchucks, allow their body temperatures to drop to
just above freezing. Their hearts beat very slowly and the rate of respiration is dramatically re-
duced. The decrease in overall metabolism is such that the consumption of stored fat accumu-
lated during the late summer and fall is very slow. These true hibernators enter a deep sleep in
their dens that may last for several weeks. The opossum does not hibernate, but may remain
inactive (holed up) for short periods of time
(several days) during severe winter weather.
During prolonged cold spells they are
lethargic and curl up in their dens to sleep.
Opossums are not considered true hiberna-
tors because they awaken during the winter
to feed and have only slight changes in body
functions. They have little or no drop in
body temperature. As the opossums stored
energy reserves in the form of fat are not as
extensive as in hibernating mammals; the
opossum must forage for food on a regular
basis, even during extreme weather condi-
tions. It should be emphasized however, that
the opossum does gain weight during the
fall for the winter months. The stored fat
is primarily subcutaneous and abdominal
but may accumulate in other body regions
such as the tail. Weight gain in opossums
A winter opossum out foraging for food during
fed in captivity is often accompanied by an accumulation of fat in the tail, which may attain a
considerable girth. It is the breakdown (catabolism) of fat, muscle, and perhaps other tissues
that allow the opossum to “holed up” during severe weather conditions that may last for a
considerable period of time. Opossums rarely leave their dens if the temperature is below
-7°C (19°F). In addition to increasing fat stores, the opossums coat also changes dramatically
in preparation for winter as is true of most mammals native to the United States. During the
summer months the coat of the opossum may be quite sparse with a very thin undercoat. The
summer pelage is then shed and replaced by a thicker coat in preparation for cooler weather.
During the fall and winter months the coat is thick and luxuriant characterized by a heavy
It was the coat of winter opossum that was at one time of commercial interest to the fur indus-
try. Although the opossum is considered a furbearer by most state agencies and trapping for
its fur regulated by an established yearly season, opossum fur is not highly sought after at the
Many opossums lose the tips of their ears and tails to frostbite. This is why older opossums
in the northern parts of their range often exhibit ragged ears and/or stubby or shortened tails.
The wounds apparently heal readily as infection is rarely observed when animals suffering
from the effects of frostbite are encountered. It is believed by most that it is the cold weather
that is the limiting factor preventing the continued northward expansion of the opossum range.
A leading cause of death at the northern edge of its range is starvation due to cold periods
of long duration when the opossum cannot forage for food and/or actually freezing due to
The skull of the Virginia opossum is considered primitive (because it retains many of the
cranio-facial features of early fossil therian mammals) and is characterized by a small brain
case. The size of the opossum’s brain case has been measured by lling the cranial cavity with
dried beans and then counting the number of beans it took to ll the cavity. It was found that
if the brain case of an opossum, a raccoon and a house cat were compared using this method,
the opossum brain case held 25 dried beans; the cat brain case held 125 dried beans and that
of a raccoon held 150 dried beans. Thus, the opossum has one of the smallest brain-to-body
size ratios among mammals and it was generally assumed that the larger the brain size to total
body ratio the more intelligent the animal is.
The opossum brain differs somewhat externally from a typical mammalian brain but in
general the internal structure and pathways of its central nervous system show only minor dif-
ferences from that of eutherian mammals. However, the external surface is smoother and has
fewer folds and groves than the brains of eutherian mammals of similar size.
The opossum brain features a pair of large, elongated olfactory lobes, which is not surpris-
ing because of this animal’s keen, well-developed sense of smell. The opossum brain like
that of all other marsupials is characterized by one major distinction: the complete absence
of a corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is a large band of nerve bers that functions to
connect the cortical areas of the two cerebral hemispheres of the eutherian brain. It is the
relative small brain size and the extremely shy and non-aggressive behavior of the opossum
in comparison to other mammals that has contributed to the myth that the opossum is a very
“stupid” animal. For example, when captured and held by hand, usually by the tail or the back
of the neck, the opossum usually does not struggle or attack its captor. If held by the neck and
the other hand used to support its back, the opossum simply gives up, relaxes and often clasps
its forepaws together in a prayer-like pose. Such a method of handling another wild mammal
of equivalent size such as a raccoon or fox would be difcult if not impossible and be met with
aggression. It is this non-aggressive behavior, together with the knowledge of its relatively
small brain size, that have been the major contributing factors in labeling the opossum as be-
ing stupid or of less mental capacity than other more aggressive animals. In addition, it must
be remembered that the opossum is a nocturnal species. Many of the published observations
and stories concerned with the behavior of the opossum were made during the daylight hours
at a time when the opossum is normally asleep. If one considers the time of observation it is
quite understandable that the opossum gained the reputation of being a bit sluggish in some of
the early accounts.
In spite of their apparent primitiveness and small brain size, opossums have a remarkable
capacity to nd food and remember where it was found. When tested for their ability to re-
member, opossums scored better than rats, rabbits, dogs, and cats but did not score as well as
humans. Opossums can remember the taste of noxious or toxic substances even a year after a
Visual discrimination tests have shown that the opossum can learn to discriminate black
versus white, different colors, patterns, and geometric forms. Additional studies designed to
measure the opossum’s ability to solve maze problems indicate that mature opossums were
superior to most species (rats, cats) in maze learning tasks.
Opossums have no highly developed or specialized mechanisms for attack or aggressive of-
fense. They are not fast runners but can climb trees and swim. However, defensive behavior
is highly developed in the opossum. Intimidation (bluff) displays are commonly observed
when an opossum is cornered and consist of the animal crouching down or sitting back on its
haunches and opening the large mouth as much as possible to display its formidable fty teeth.
As this occurs the animal hisses, growls or screeches in that order and with increased intensity.
If caught and handled (picked up) the animal tends to defecate and release a pea-green secre-
tion from the two paracloacal glands located on either side of the cloaca near the base of the
tail. If faced with an extreme threat such as a dog attack, the animal may feign death or “play
possum” for which this behavior is named. Playing possum is a passive defensive tactic used
by the opossum as well as other species in the animal kingdom, such as the hog-nosed snake.
Feigning death functions to turn off all potential signals that might trigger the predator to at-
A recently trapped male opossum exhibiting a typical bluff display. The opossum is crouched
down and its mouth opened wide to expose its large canine teeth.
An example of a male opossum feigning death (playing possum). During this behavior the opos-
sum’s eyes and mouth remain open. The teeth are bared.
tack or continue its attack. Opossums are extremely tough animals and can withstand con-
siderable abuse. Opossum skeletons that have been examined often reveal well-healed bone
fractures which equivalent sized eutherian mammals never would have survived.
During feigned death the opossum often lies on its side with a ventral exion of the body and
tail (it curls up) with its eyes and mouth open and teeth bared. The tongue may hang out of
the mouth and the animal continues to drool (salivate) considerably. The digits (toes) of the
forepaws are closed and grasp anything in contact with them, even the other forepaw. The
opossum appears to be in a catatonic state and this condition may occur for as little as a few
minutes or last for several hours. Poking and shaking will not revive the animal from its
catatonic state nor will it inch from abuse while in this state. Younger animals are more apt
to play possum than older ones. Studies using electrocardiograms (ECGs) to monitor heart
activity and electroencephalograms (EEGs) to monitor brain activity have failed to show any
signicant differences between opossums feigning death and those in an awake, active state.
Although the brain and heart are thought to be involved in the catatonic state observed, the
role of their involvement is unknown at the present time. Some have suggested that the cata-
tonic state of “playing possum” is analogous to fainting in humans.
Walking and Running
Opossums have what is described as a primitive plantigrade-quadrupedal type of movement
when on the ground. This means that the plantar surface or soles of the forefeet and the hind
feet of the opossum are placed at on the ground. The tail is usually elevated somewhat trail-
ing behind the opossum held at a position level with its back and is not dragged on the ground.
The resulting, walking movement is best described as a waddle. When viewed from behind,
the rear of the animal tends to roll or rock from one side to the other with each step.
When walking, the opossum has three feet on the ground at the same time for support. For-
ward progress is accomplished by advancing the opposite foot sequentially as follows: left
forefoot, right hind foot, right forefoot, left hind foot. The faster the opossum moves forward,
the quicker the rolling action resulting in an exaggerated waddling motion. Maximum run-
ning or waddling speed of the opossum is about 3.5 miles per hour. As the opossum’s forward
speed increases, only two feet are on the ground simultaneously. Balance while running is
maintained by keeping diagonally opposed feet on the ground. For example, when the left
forefoot and the right hind foot are on the ground, the right forefoot and left hind foot are
raised and in motion. With an increase in speed the body rocks from side to side and the head
bobs up and down. The tail is used for balance and shifts its position to the side where the
hind foot is being raised. Thus, the tail shifts from side to side when running. Contrary to the
popular belief that the opossum is an extremely slow moving creature, over a short distance
they can be surprisingly quick to avoid capture or predators.
The opossum is a strong but slow swimmer and will even swim underwater to escape preda-
tors. Two types of swimming patterns have been observed: one pattern uses the same limb
movement as seen in terrestrial locomotion; the other involves the synchronous movement
of the limbs on one side that alternate with those of the other side. The tail performs scull-
ing movements in both types of swimming patterns. Maximum swimming speed is about 0.5
miles per hour and the opossum can cover distances of 150 yards or more with ease.
Like all mammals in the wild, grooming skills of the opossum are extremely important as
its life is dependent on this behavior. Opossums spend a great deal of time grooming. This is
particularly true during the fall and winter months, as a matted or unkempt coat will result in
the animal dying of exposure due to conditions of the weather. Opossums lick the forefeet to
keep them clean and use the forepaws to cleanse the facial area in catlike fashion. They sit up
on their hind legs like cats using the tail as a prop. The face is wiped in a circular pattern with
the forepaws, which are constantly licked. The hind foot is used as a comb to groom the body.
The four-clawed digits of the hind foot are held rigid and used to comb particulate matter and
parasites (primarily ticks and eas) from the fur. The forepaws are used to hold the tail during
grooming which is licked carefully. During the breeding season female opossums pay particu-
lar attention to the pouch and lick this region extensively if pouch young are present to keep
this area clean.
The opossum is generally considered to be a somewhat nomadic, shy, solitary animal that may
occupy a specic area or territory for a length of time (six months to a year) before moving
on. The time and the size of the area occupied by an opossum are dependent primarily on
the abundance of food and water. Individuals will defend the space occupied against other
opossums at a given time. The social behavior between individuals is reported to be poorly
developed or antisocial except between sexes during the breeding season. However, after mat-
ing, females are no longer receptive and will ght persistent males. At other times encounters
between adults of either sex are said to be antagonistic. Aggressive behavior between females
and males is similar and consists of displays of an open mouth with bared teeth, aggressive
vocalizations of hisses and growls, and actual physical contact. The hindquar ters are usually
depressed, the forelimbs extended, and the head raised.
More recent studies of captive opossums suggest that these animals form stable, hierarchical
social relationships with females usually being dominant. Most observed interactions among
unrelated opossums kept in large outdoor enclosures were neutral with females often found
nesting together. The extreme agonistic behavior observed was almost always between two
males. Meetings of the opposite sex during the breeding season results in initial aggressive
displays followed by courtship with the two opossums spending several days together. Such
studies together with a growing body of evidence from eld studies of unrestrained, wild
animals indicate that the social behavior of opossums may be much more complex than was
once thought. Overlapping home ranges and a well-developed system of chemical (olfactory)
communication suggests much higher encounter rates than previously thought. Environmen-
tal factors and availability of food clearly inuence space use and the population density of
this species. These factors also must inuence opossum social structure, as it appears ex-
ible enough to allow high population densities when food is abundant. Such social exibility,
though poorly understood, together with generalized den and food requirements, accounts at
least in part, for the opossum’s success in continuing to expand its overall range into a variety
Although the opossum has a high mortality rate at all stages of its life cycle, mortality is
particularly high during the rst year. The death rate of young while still being carried in
the pouch is high and ranges between ten and twenty percent. Of those that survive until
after weaning, to go out on their own, fewer that ten percent live beyond the rst year. A few
tagged wild opossums have been shown to have a life span of about two or three years. Thus,
the turnover rate of the opossum population is rapid and the indigenous population of a given
region is heavily weighted toward the young of the year. The most important causes of death
leading to their relatively short life spans are: human-caused deaths due to automobiles (road-
kill victims) as well as hunting and trapping, diseases and parasites, exposure and starvation.
It is estimated that between four million and eight million opossums are killed each year in
the United States by automobiles. Although predators such as large owls, foxes, coyotes, and
domestic animals (dogs and cats) may reduce the numbers of young animals somewhat, preda-
tion does not appear to be a signicant cause of mortality in the adult population. The opos-
sum is host to a multitude of external and inter nal parasites and these generally are debilitat-
ing and increase the susceptibility of the opossum to malnutrition and disease. Parasites and
human activities apparently are the leading cause of death for most adult opossums.
Opossums, for their size, are one of the shortest-lived animals in the world. Those individuals
that do live into their second year show many of the classic signs of advanced aging such as
weight loss, lessened motor coordination, and formation of cataracts. Why this occurs so early
in this species is unknown. Captive opossums have been recorded as living about twice as
long as wild opossums with an occasional individual living up to ten years of age.
All cells of the opossum from conception to the adult have the same number of chromosomes
and genetic makeup. The only exception being the sperm and egg cells which have half this
number. In general, marsupials have low chromosome numbers in comparison to those of
eutherian mammals and range from ten to thirty-two chromosomes dependent on the species.
Marsupial chromosomes are larger than those of eutherian mammals and morphologically
distinct sex chromosomes can be identied in marsupials. The largest chromosome pair in the
Virginia opossum measures 14 µm in length, which is about three times the size of the larg-
est pair of human chromosomes. The correct number of diploid chromosomes for Didelphis
virginiana is twenty-two.
The karyotype reported for the Virginia opossum is six pairs of subtelocentric and four pairs
of telocentric autosomes, a small subtelocentric X chromosome, and a tiny Y chromosome.
Resistance to Snake Bite
During casual eld studies on mammals indigenous to the Everglades region of Florida, a
natural bite by a 160 cm eastern diamondback rattlesnake on an adult opossum was observed.
The opossum displayed no apparent distress. After this initial documented observation,
several eld experiments were conducted manually causing snakes to inict actual bites on
captured opossums. Bites were inicted using (1) timber rattlesnake (Crotalus h. horridus), (2)
eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus), (3) cottonmouth moccasin (Agkis-
trodon p. piscivorus), (4) Russell’s viper (Vipera russelli), and (5) the common Asiatic cobra
(Naja n. kaouthia). None of the opossums developed observable local reactions or systemic
effects other than trauma attributable to fang penetration. Because the amount of venom in-
jected by an actual snakebite is highly variable, another series of experiments was conducted
in which a known volume of snake venom was injected directly into the opossum blood
stream. These studies demonstrated that the Virginia opossum has a remarkable physiological
tolerance to both snakebite and massive intravascular infusion of venom. Thus, the opossum
appeared resistant to venomous snakebites (pit vipers), particularly from those snakes that
share the same range and habitat with the opossum. If a copperhead, water moccasin, or rattle-
snake bites the opossum, the reaction is only a small local swelling similar to that of a bee
sting. It should also be pointed out that in some regions of the United States poisonous snakes
represent an important part of the opossum’s diet.
Scientists have now identied the protective factor in opossum blood serum using high-pres-
sure liquid chromatography and named this small protein (a proteinase inhibitor) lethal toxin-
neutralizing factor (LTNF). The reason opossums are naturally resistant to the proteolytic
effects of several venoms is that the proteinase inhibitors in their blood bind to and neutralize
the venoms. The proteinase inhibitors are not antibodies but proteins that occur naturally in
opossum serum. A series of experiments were conducted in which a predetermined lethal
dose of toxins derived from animals, plants, and bacteria injected into mice were given LTNF.
It was observed that LTNF neutralized the lethal effects of all snake venoms tested: western
diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), Thailand cobra (Naja kaouthia), Asian viper (Da-
boia russelli), Australian taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus); is effective against scorpion (Andro-
cetonus australis) and honeybee (Apis mellifera) venoms; plant-derived ricin (one of the most
toxic plant-derived toxins from castor seeds) as well as botulinum toxin from the bacterium,
Clostridium botulinum. Recently, the active ingredient of LTNF (a ten amino acid peptide)
has been sequenced and synthesized and tested on mice. The results proved that the synthetic
form was effective in inhibiting the lethality of all the toxins tested. Lethality was inhibited
even when the synthetic LTNF was administered two hours after toxin or venom injection.
Most importantly, synthetic LTNF can now be made in abundance without depending upon
the natural source, opossum serum. Thus, LTNF can be made in abundance and may prove to
be a universal therapy against toxins from animals, plants, and bacteria to help save human
Resistance to Rabies
Opossums are rarely found to be rabid and appear to be resistant to many viral diseases
such as distemper, parvovirus, and feline hepatitis normally found in domestic animals (cats
and dogs) as well as some wild mammals. The resistance to many of the viral diseases is
thought to be due, at least in part, to the slightly lower body temperature of the opossum as
compared to eutherian mammals.
The body temperatures of marsupials are generally lower than those of eutherian mammals
and are subject to considerable variation. The average body temperature of the Virginia opos-
sum is about 35° C. The body temperature of the opossum uctuates, being higher at night
when they are active and lower during daylight hours when they are inactive. The opossum
can control its body temperature at ambient temperatures (from 0° C to 37° C) and have been
observed to lick their forepaws, hind feet and tail base to wet them with saliva and enhance
cooling via evaporation during the hot summer months. Early pouch young cannot control
their body temperatures and rely on the body temperature of the mother when in the pouch.
5. Reproductive Biology of the Male
Other than size, the male opossum is characterized by a larger head the snout of which ap-
pears more robust in comparison to the females’ snout, which is more pointed and delicate.
The two upper canines of the male also tend to be larger and are obvious on close inspection.
During the breeding season, sternal glands within the skin secrete a yellow/orange colored
substance that stains the fur overlying these scent glands. The stained fur appears as a
diamond shaped patch located along the ventral midline between the neck and sternum. The
testicles of the male are housed within a scrotal sac located between the hind legs. The testes
remain descended throughout the year but can be retracted by a cremaster muscle as in euthe-
The reproductive system of the male opossum consists of a pair of testes and their excurrent
ductal system, two accessory sex glands (the prostate and Cowper’s glands), and a bid penis.
Under normal conditions, such as handling, the penis of the opossum is not visible or at least
readily apparent. This is because in the non-erect state it is withdrawn into the body. The
penis is located ventral to (beneath) the anal opening and is contained within a shallow space
called the cloaca. Within the cloaca the free (bid) end of the penis is sur rounded by an invag-
ination of skin called the preputial sac. During erection, the penis extends from the cloaca, is
directed forward and the preputial sac stretched out so it disappears. The testes are contained
within a visible, prominent pre-penial scrotum. In this particular arrangement the scrotal sac
is positioned in front of the penis. The scrotum is pendulous with a narrow stalk that joins it to
the ventral body wall. The scrotal skin of the opossum is thin and covered with a sparser and
ner hair than the remainder of the body wall. Each testis is housed within an additional mem-
branous sac called the tunica vaginalis. It is heavily pigmented and black in color. The actual
testes of the opossum are cream white in color. The opossum has an elongated, carrot-shaped
prostate that forms around the urethra. It consists of three separate regions that differ in color.
Cowper’s glands of the opossum consists of three pairs of glands. The accessory sex glands of
the opossum, like those of the man and other mammals, function to provide a nutritive, uid
vehicle for the spermatozoa at mating.
Low Sperm Numbers
Mammals generally produce many more spermatozoa than needed for fertilization. In cattle
and sheep, for example, it is estimated that in excess of 500 million sper m are ejaculated into
the female reproductive tract for the fertilization of just one or two eggs. Smaller mammals,
such as rabbits or rats, may inseminate 150 million and 50 million sperm, respectively, to fer-
tilize just a few eggs. In comparison relatively few spermatozoa (~3 million) are inseminated
into the female reproductive tract by the male opossum. Why the opossum has a much lower
sperm count when compared to the majority of eutherian mammals is unknown. However, in
spite of their low numbers, opossum spermatozoa are remarkably efcient and may fertilize
fteen to thirty ova or more dependent on how many are released by the ovary.
The success of the opossum’s spermatozoa in the female reproductive tract is thought to be
due to two unusual phenomena: sperm pairing and temporary sperm storage in oviductal
crypts of the female. The phenomenon of sperm pairing is reported to occur in other mar-
supials native to Central and South America but does not occur in marsupials native to the
Like other mammals, the testes of the opossum produce sperm cells (spermatozoa). Once
formed the sperm cells enter the male excurrent ductal system and are stored in the distal end
of a region of the ductal system known as the epididymis. During their transit through this
portion of the male reproductive system, the sperm undergo physiological maturity, ie, they
become motile and capable of fertilization. Unlike eutherian mammals, several structural
The head (nucleus) of an immature spermatozoon or sperm cell is shown in the upper left il-
lustration. Heads of paired mature spermatozoa are shown at the bottom of this gure. These
spermatozoa were treated with DAPI which binds to DNA and shows a blue uorescence when
examine with UV light. An illustration of an immature spermatozoon as seen with the scanning
electron microscope (right) shows the shape of the head (arrows) which contains the DNA, the
position of acrosome (A), and the tail of an immature spermatozoon. (Krause and Cutts, Arch.
Histol. Jpn. 42: 1979).
changes can be observed as the sperm move through the opossum epididymis. In the rst
part or proximal portion of the epididymis, the spermatozoa are single and characterized by
V-shaped heads (nuclei) positioned at right angles to the tails.
The nuclei contain the DNA of the male germ cells. One nuclear arm is larger than the other
arm and the larger arm is covered on one surface by a thin bag-like structure called an acro-
some. The acrosome contains several different enzymes that are essential for fertilization
to take place as these enzymes digest a hole in membranes surrounding opossum ova (eggs)
thereby allowing sperm to penetrate the eggs. Initially, a large cytoplasmic droplet envelops
the V-shaped nuclear area resulting in a funnel-shaped head characteristic of the immature
spermatozoon. Unlike most other mammals, sperm from the central region of the opossum
epididymis show two dramatic major morphologic changes: the cytoplasmic droplet disap-
pears and the nucleus undergoes a 90° rotation.
As a result of these changes the two nuclear arms come to lie on a plane parallel to the long
axis of the tail. Following the 90° rotation of the heads, two spermatozoa pair. The formation
of each sperm pair involves the close association of the large arms of the nuclear heads, acro-
some to acrosome. Both unpaired and paired sperm are found in the mid region of the epididy-
mis and all show a marked increase in motility as compared to sperm observed in the proxi-
mal region. The majority of sperm are paired (~96%) in the distal region of the epididymis.
Mature spermatozoa (left) taken from the distal epididymis and photographed through a light
microscope. Two pairs of paired spermatozoa (arrows) are shown as well as a mature unpaired
spermatozoon. Note that the arms of the sperm head have rotated 90° and now lie parallel to
the sperm tail. The photograph to the right illustrates three pairs of spermatozoa as seen in the
scanning electron microscope. The acrosome of each sperm head lies adjacent to that of the
opposing sperm of the pair. (Krause and Cutts, Arch. Histol. Jpn. 42: 1979).
Although some motile sperm remain in the uterus of the female three hours after mating,
the majority are found in the oviducts. The majority of motile, viable sperm are conned
to the oviducts twelve hours postcoitus and are remarkable in their ability to remain in the
oviduct as viable cells for a considerable period of time. It is believed that the spermatozoa
are maintained and stored temporarily as viable cells within a special microenvironment of
crypts (small cavities) within the oviduct. Though low in number, the overall effectiveness of
opossum sperm is thought to depend on sperm pairing and their concentration in the oviduct
where fertilization takes place. Sperm pairing is thought to prevent the acrosome of each
sperm forming a pair from coming into contact with secretions within the female reproductive
tract until the time of fertilization. Sperm pairing involves the precise alignment of the cell
membrane overlying the acrosome enabling paired sperm to behave as a single unit with coor-
dinated tail beat patterns that greatly increases straight-line velocity compared with unpaired
sperm. The sperm heads are glued together by specic cell adhesion molecules found only in
the region of the cell membrane overlying the acrosome, which interact only with identical
adhesion molecules within the cell membrane of other sperm cells. Pairing improves swim-
ming efciency and speed to gain access to the oviduct as quickly as possible. The action of a
swimming sperm pair is reminiscent of watching a seagull in ight.
Following the separation of the two sperm forming a pair in the oviduct, the acrosome is
activated and becomes swollen and lls with membranous vesicles. Thus, opossum sperm pair
and cooperate to reach the site of fertilization. The phenomenon of sperm pairing may exist
to protect the low number of sperm produced by the opossum without compromising fertil-
ity. Because of the pairing phenomenon, opossum sperm and those of other species from the
Americas are unique when compared to Australasian marsupials or eutherian and prototherian
mammals. In the latter groups of mammals sperm pairing does not occur.
6. Reproductive Biology of the Female
The reproductive system of the female opossum consists of two ovaries, two oviducts, and
two completely separate uteri that terminate as two separate narrow cervices. The opossum
cervices are short, neck-like structures of the distal uteri that connect to a vaginal-cul-de-sac.
When viewed from the interior the cervices appear as prominent papillae protruding into the
lumen of the vaginal-cul-de-sac. The vaginal apparatus of the female reproductive system
consists of two distinct lateral vaginal canals, which extend from the vaginal-cul-de-sac to the
urogenital sinus. Thus, unlike eutherian mammals with two uteri and a single vagina the opos-
sum retains two vaginae. Early in embryologic development all therian species have paired
vaginae which later fuse to from a single structure. These paired structures do not fuse to
form a single vagina in the case of the opossum because unlike eutherian mammals the tubes
(ureters) that carry urine from the kidneys to the bladder lie between them and prevent them
from fusing together during development. Neither of the vaginae functions as a birth canal.
Instead, a new opening forms in the connective tissue that lies between the vaginae. This spe-
cial pseudovaginal (birth) canal develops at the time of delivery and then disappears; hence
it is a transitory structure in the opossum. A deep, well-dened pouch also characterizes the
female opossum, which functions as “living incubator” in which to maintain her young during
the rst seventy-ve to eighty days after their birth.
The Virginia opossum is a seasonal breeder, with the reproductive cycle beginning shortly
after the winter solstice and lasting until June through most of its range. The female opossum
is polyestrous with each cycle lasting about twenty-eight days. Variations of the cycle do oc-
cur and are thought to be due to a seasonal shift in the cycle length and may be due to dietary
deciency as well. Females are receptive for one-two days. The opossum usually produces
two litters of young per year in the United States with an occasional third litter occurring
in southern California and in southern Texas. In general, the Virginia opossum breeds less
often and has larger litters in the north whereas in the south more litters of smaller size are a
common occurrence. However, the net production of young for both regions is about the same.
First matings usually occur in January or February in most of the United States but may be as
late as March in regions of southern Canada or as early as mid December in Florida or Loui-
siana. The interval between litters is about 120 days. An average of about twenty-three young
are born, with as may as fty or more being reported. Of these those that are able to locate a
teat and attach to it survive, the rest quickly perish. It is thought that female opossums have
only two years of reproductive activity.
Ova (eggs) are discharged from both opossum ovaries at the same time, reach the uteri at the
same time, and initially appear str ucturally identical whether fertilized or unfertilized.
The number of ovarian follicles that ovulate varies considerably with about sixteen being the
average. However, as many as sixty have been recorded. Mature opossum oocytes or eggs
lack a corona radiata and are surrounded only by a thin, homogenous appearing zona pel-
lucida that measures between 2.4 µM and 3.3 µM in thickness at the time of ovulation. The
zona pellucida of the opossum consists of proteins and glycosaminoglycans. This situation is
in contrast to most, if not all, eutherian mammals including man where a layer of follicular
cells called the corona radiata lies on the external surface of the zona pellucida and com-
pletely surrounds the ovum. Like other marsupial species, if fertilization of the ova occurs, the
Virginia opossum completes its gestation period within the time frame of a single luteal phase.
The luteal phase is less than 60% of the estrus cycle in the opossum and is followed by a fol-
licular phase leading to the next estrus and ovulation.
The fertile estrus period of the opossum is thought to be about twelve hours in duration but
may be longer. Following ovulation and mating, the paired sperm separate in the oviduct.
With the separation of the sperm pair, the acrosome of each sperm swells and is lled with
small membranous vacuoles. Just prior to fertilization the acrosomal surface of a sperm comes
to lie at on the zona pellucida surrounding the ovum. The hydrolytic enzymes (acrosin,
arylsulfatase, hyaluronidase, N-acetylhexosaminidase) contained within the acrosome are
then released and digest a relatively large, uneven hole in the zona pellucida. The acrosomal
surface of the sperm head then fuses with the cell membrane (oolemma) of the ovum. Fer-
tilization is monospermic. Granules called cortical granules, concentrated in the peripheral
margin of the opossum ovum, disappear at fertilization. The release of the cortical granules is
referred to as the cortical reaction and prevents other sperm from penetrating the egg. There is
an absence of egg and sperm membranes around the decondensing sperm head soon after its
incorporation into the ovum. This pattern of gamete interaction more closely resembles that of
non-mammalian vertebrates and invertebrates than eutherian mammals.
A single unfertilized ovum (egg) ushed from the uter-
us of an opossum with physiologic saline. The egg was
preserved in xative, cut through its center, and photo-
graphed through a microscope. A thin homogenous mem-
brane (the zona pellucida) surrounds the ovum, which in
turn is enveloped by a thick layer of mucoid material.
(Krause, Adv. Anat. Embryol. Cell Biol. 143: 1998).
The second polar body, containing excess genetic material resulting from previous reduction
divisions (meiosis) by the egg, is shed by the oocyte following the incorporation of the single
Immediately following cortical granule release by fertilized ova, the oocytes are covered by a
thick layer of oviductal mucus produced by non-ciliated secretory cells within the epithelial
lining of the oviduct. Oocytes together with their oviductal mucoid covering may reach a di-
ameter of 0.75 mm. The fertilized oocytes now referred to as zygotes reach the uterus between
twelve and twenty-four hours after ovulation.
7. Formation of the Embryo
The short gestation period of the opossum as well as most other marsupial species can be
subdivided into ve basic categories: cleavage, unilaminar blastocysts, bilaminar blastocysts,
trilaminar blastocysts, and early organogenesis.
The rst cleavage of the fertilized ovum occurs on the second day after ovulation. The second,
third, and fourth cleavages occur during the third day of gestation. The resulting blastomeres
(cells) formed during the early cleavage stages become arranged around a presumptive space
or blastocoele and lie separately along the inner surface of the zona pellucida. The blasto-
meres establish contact with one another as a result of increased cell number due to mitotic
activity (cell division) as well as the spreading and attening of individual blastomeres. A
unilaminar blastocyst, that measures about 0.11 mm in diameter and usually consisting of
thirty-two cells uniform in appearance, is formed by the fourth day of gestation. The unil-
aminar blastocyst stage lasts between twelve and twenty-four hours in the opossum. As the
unilaminar blastocyst undergoes expansion, there is a decrease in the width of the surround-
ing zona pellucida, the mucoid layer, and a surrounding shell membrane. When the unilaminar
blastocyst measures about 0.34 mm in diameter and consists of fty to sixty cells, enlarged
cells called “mother endodermal cells” appear between the cells at one hemisphere of the
A series of drawings illustrating the early embryonic development (cleavage) of the opossum
immediately following fertilization: A one-cell stage, B two-cell stage, C three-cell stage, D
four-cell stage, E six-cell stage, F eight-cell stage, G twelve-cell stage, H sixteen-cell stage, I
thirty-two-cell unilaminar blastocyst, J rst appearance of endodermal mother cells (arrow),
and K the spread of endodermal mother cells (arrows) along the blastocyst interior to create a
bilaminar blastocyst. (Krause, Adv. Anat. Embryol. Cell Biol. 143: 1998).
These endodermal cells then migrate into the interior space of the unilaminar blastocyst and
establish a single layer of cells that line the interior surface thereby transforming it into a
bilaminar blastocyst. By about the sixth prenatal day the transformation of a unilaminar blas-
tocyst to a bilaminar blastocyst is complete and now measures about 0.75 mm in diameter.
Both the mucoid layer and the zona pellucida are lost (disappear) as the bilaminar blastocyst
is established. It is by this means that the denitive endoderm (the inner most layer of cells)
is established in the forming opossum embryo. It is from the endoderm that the respiratory
and digestive systems will eventually develop. The cells forming that region of the blasto-
cyst where the endodermal cells originated and migrated from now appear taller and more
crowded together as compared to adjacent cells. These cells, referred to as protodermal cells,
identify the position where the future opossum embryo will form. The forming embryonic
area of the opossum unlike eutherian mammals occupies a supercial position within the
wall of the blastocyst and is not covered by trophoblastic cells. Likewise, a morula stage does
not form nor is an inner cell mass observed in the opossum as in eutherian mammals. Meso-
dermal cells begin to appear between the ectodermal and endodermal layers of the six-day
opossum blastocyst and a trilaminar blastocyst measuring 1.4 mm in diameter is present by
the seventh day of gestation.
The drawing labeled A illustrates a region through the center of an opossum bilaminar blasto-
cyst. The enlarged cells in the region labeled P form an area known as the medullary plate and
is the region within the blastocyst wall in which the opossum embryo will develop. A single layer
of endodermal cells lines the blastocyst interior. The drawing labeled B illustrates a region
through the center of a trilaminar blastocyst. Mesodermal cells labeled M form a layer of cells
between the inner lying endodermal cells and the outer lying ectodermal cells in the region of
the embryo called the medullary plate. The mesodermal cells arose from cells forming the med-
ullary plate and migrated into the region between the two other cell layers. The mesodermal
cells are found only in the region of the medullary plate and do not migrate completely around
the circumference of the blastocyst. (Krause, Adv. Anat. Embryol. Cell Biol.143: 1998).
Initial Embryo Formation
The mesoder mal layer expands and extends beyond the forming embr yo to lie between the
extra embryonic endoderm and ectoderm by the eighth day of gestation.
It is the mesodermal layer within the region of the embryo that will eventually give rise to the
musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems of the developing opossum. The outer ectodermal
layer will develop into the brain, spinal cord, and skin of the opossum embryo.
Drawings of a series opossum
embryos representing embry-
onic day ve to embryonic day
nine illustrate the spread of me-
soderm and the early develop-
ment of the embryo: A the prim-
itive steak with mesodermal
crescents, B Hensen’s node, C
the primitive groove (mesoder-
mal cells occur only beneath the
medullary plate of the forming
embryo at this stage of develop-
ment), D and E mesodermal cells
are beginning to extend beyond
the medullary plate of the em-
bryo (arrows), F initial forma-
tion of somites (arrows), and G
the rst appearance of coelomic
rudiments. (Krause, Adv. Anat.
Embryol. Cell Biol.143: 1998).
Scanning electron micrographs depicting the surface features of an opossum embryo growing
within the wall of a nine-day blastocyst. The outer ectodermal cells of the forming embryo at
this point in time are transforming into the central nervous system. In the upper gure the de-
veloping brain is seen at the right, the spinal cord (which appears as deep groove) courses hori-
zontally along the length of the embryo. The illustration to lower left is a photograph taken at a
different angle. The forming brain (near the bottom) is elevated in comparison to the remainder
of the embryo and the neural groove that will become the spinal cord are clearly shown. The
gure at the lower right illustrates the tail region of the forming opossum embr yo.
The extra embryonic region of the trilaminar opossum blastocyst may show either two or
three cell layers. The one-third of the extra embryonic blastocyst located on the side opposite
the forming embryo is never invaded by mesoderm and represents a persisting portion of the
original bilaminar blastocyst. This region of the embryonic vesicle consists of only two layers
(ectoderm and endoderm) and will form what is known as the non-vascular portion of the de-
nitive yolk-sac placenta. The vascular portion of the yolk-sac placenta will develop from the
extraembryonic region of blastocyst wall that contains mesoderm, ie, all three-germ layers.
Prior to and during the ninth day of gestation, the developing blastocysts are spherical in
shape and oat freely within secretions of the uterine cavity. The opossum embryos at this
stage of development obtain their nutrition from secretions produced by cells lining the uter-
ine cavity that are rich in protein, particularly albumins and pre-albumins. A shell membrane
surrounds each blastocyst during the rst nine days of the twelve and a half day gestation pe-
riod. The surrounding shell membrane is porous and allows the diffusion of nutritive materials
from the uterine cavity to the embryo. Cells (trophectoderm) forming much of the exterior
surface of the embryonic sphere (blastocyst) absorb the nutrients. Thus, the shell membrane of
the opossum is thought to act primarily as a physical barrier that functions to separate mater-
nal and fetal tissues.
A photograph of an eight-day blastocyst oating in tissue culture medium (left) demonstrates
that the opossum embryo forms in the wall of the embryonic sphere. The mesoderm of a nine-
day blastocyst (right) has spread a considerable distance beyond the forming embryo (in the
center) and appears as a textured material within the wall of the embryonic sphere. (Krause,
Adv. Anat. Embryol. Cell Biol. 143: 1998).
The Shell Membrane
When the opossum zygote enters the uterus it measures between 0.4 and 0.5 mm in diameter
and is surrounded by a zona pellucida, a thick mucoid layer and an outer, limiting shell mem-
brane. The shell membrane of the opossum is transparent during life but looks like a mat of
closely interwoven bers when examined with the electron microscope. The shell membrane
is made up of a disulde-rich structural protein called ovokeratin. Structurally, the shell
membrane of the opossum appears very similar to that associated with bird eggs. Unlike
birds, however, the shell membrane of the opossum never becomes a calcied structure. The
ovokeratin protein is thought to be the secretory product of non-ciliated secretory cells form-
ing uterine glands located near the orice of the oviduct. The physical separation of fetal and
maternal tissues by the shell membrane is thought to allow the opossum embryos to attain a
critical mass and/or produce factors so that they will not be destroyed (absorbed) by uterine
lining cells that would otherwise recognize them as foreign tissues.
The shell membrane of the opossum acts as a porous physical bar rier separating maternal and
embryonic tissues for the rst nine days of the twelve and a half day gestation period.
A nine-day opossum blastocyst showing the forming embryo and surrounding extra embryonic
mesoderm recognized by its rough texture. This blastocyst was photographed directly while
oating in tissue culture. The entire blastocyst is surrounded by a transparent shell membrane,
which has the toughness of cellophane or saran wrap. A small wrinkle in the shell membrane is
shown at the arrow. If studied with the scanning electron microscope (upper right) the features
of the external surface of the shell membrane can be seen in detail. The shell membrane consists
of a mat of interwoven ovokeratin bers that vary in diameter. When viewed in section with the
transmission electron microscope (lower right), the ovokeratin bers appear dense and homo-
geneous without apparent substructure. (Krause and Cutts, Anat. Rec. 207: 1983).
Early organogenesis occurs during the last three days of the twelve and a half day gestation
period. During this three-day period, organogenesis of the forming embryo proceeds at
an astonishing rate, resulting in a viable fetus capable of survival in the external envi-
ronment and of independent migration to the pouch. The forelimbs are present as limb
buds early during the tenth prenatal day, the cervical exure has occurred in the forming head
region, and a developing heart is clearly visible. In contrast to the cranial or head region, the
caudal (tail) half of the opossum torso is elongate and smooth in appearance and does not
exhibit any external evidence suggestive of hindlimb development. Late in day ten the buds
of the forming hindlimbs are visible for the rst time. The snout, mouth and tongue become
well dened during prenatal day eleven and by prenatal day twelve the digits of the forepaws
possess deciduous claws.
In contrast, the hindlimbs are paddle-like in structure and show only the initial stages of digit
formation at the time of birth.
An explosive amount
of growth occurs in the
opossum embryo be-
tween embr yonic day
nine and embryonic day
twelve of the twelve and
a half day gestation pe-
riod. Figures A, B, and
C show opossum em-
bryos representative of
development that has
occurred early in the
tenth embryonic day. In
these embryos the devel-
oping heart (h) and buds
of the forelimbs (arrows)
are clearly visible. Fig-
ure D is representative
of an opossum embryo
late in embr yonic day
ten. The head and torso
can be recognized, the
forelimb (f) appears as
a paddle with forming
digits whereas the hind
limb appears only as a
bud (arrow) and is in the
initial stages of forma-
tion. The tiny sac-like
structure is the allantois
(a). Figure E represents
an eleven-day opossum embryo. Note the continued development of the head and the establish-
ment of the paw and digits on the forelimb. The allantois (a) has expanded in size equal to that
of the embr yo. Figure F illustrates another eleven-day opossum embryo that more clearly il-
lustrates features of the developing head. Note the large, open mouth and the well-developed
tongue. The pigment layer of retina in the developing eye is also clearly visible. Compare the
structural features of the forelimb with those of the hind limb (arrow). Figure G is an opossum
from the twelfth day of gestation just hours prior to birth. Note that deciduous claws (arrow)
tip the digits of the forepaws. The retina of the eye remains visible through a transparent skin.
Nostrils and the oral shield around the mouth are clearly visible. The hind limb continues to
have a paddle-like conguration but now shows the initial formation of digits. (Krause, Adv.
Anat. Embryol. Cell Biol. 143: 1998).
The shell membrane disappears near the end of ninth prenatal day and as a result of the
disappearance of this physical barrier, a noninvasive yolk sac (choriovitelline) placenta is
established that persists throughout pregnancy. The region of the embryonic sphere (blasto-
cyst) beyond the forming embryo that is to become the yolk sac placenta forms prior to the
loss of the shell membrane. With the establishment of blood vessels within the extraembryonic
mesoderm, a distinct blood vessel called the sinus terminalis forms at the most distal extent
of the vascularized mesodermal layer.
The sinus terminalis is a large collecting blood vessel that forms at the edge of the meso-
dermal layer and courses around the equator of the embryonic sphere. The sinus terminalis
clearly identies the point where the remainder of the wall of the embryonic sphere consists
only of endoderm and ectoderm (trophectoderm) and remains similar in structure to the
original bilaminar blastocyst. Likewise, the extraembryonic mesoderm does not invade
another region of the embryonic sphere called the proamnion located around the head of the
forming embryo. As the opossum embryo elongates, the head region exes and extends with
the surrounding proamnion to enter the central cavity of the original embryonic sphere. As a
result of the embryo extending into the central cavity of the embryonic sphere, that portion of
the amnion, which surrounds the cranial half of the embryo, consists of only ectodermal and
endodermal layers. The remainder of the opossum amnion develops as a result of folding and
consists of ectoderm and avascular somatic mesoderm.
Following removal of the shell membrane, a scanning electron micrograph (left) demonstrates
that the nine-day opossum embryo is continuous with, and part of the embryonic sphere form-
ing the wall of the blastocyst. A crescent-shaped region of the blastocyst wall called the pro-
amnion (arrows) surrounds the forming brain and head area of the nine-day opossum embryo
(right). As development continues the head region of embryo exes inward toward the central
cavity of the blastocyst. Eventually, the entire embryo enters the central cavity of the blastocyst
and in doing so becomes enshrouded by a thin, transparent fetal membrane known as the am-
nion. (Krause, Adv. Anat. Embryol. Cell Biol. 143: 1998).
A diagrammatic representation of a nine-day opossum blastocyst and embryo. The left gure
illustrates the position of the opossum embryo (E), the extent of the extra-embryonic mesoderm
(M), and the position of the proamnion (P) when examining a blastocyst as seen from above.
When viewed in section, as if the blastocyst was cut in half and viewed along its cut surface as
shown in the right gure, the position of the various cell layers (M mesoderm, EC ectoderm, EN
endoderm), the proamnion and the embryo forming in the wall of the blastocyst are illustrated.
The arrow indicates the direction the embryo will follow as it enters the cavity of the blastocyst.
In doing so, cells of the proamnion proliferate and as the embryo enters the central cavity pulls
with it and becomes enshrouded within the thin amniotic sac. This action can be visualized
if one imagines pushing a nger (the opossum embryo) into a partially inated balloon (the
proamnion region of the blastocyst wall). The rubber of the balloon stretched around the nger
would be equivalent to the amniotic sac. The end result is that two membranous sacs surround
the forming opossum embryo. The amnion which is closest to the embryo and forms largely
from the proamnion and the yolk sac placenta which is derived from the remaining blastocyst
wall following the entry of the opossum into the central cavity of the blastocyst. (Krause and
Cutts, Acta Anat.123: 1985).
As the developing opossum embryo enters the interior of the blastocyst, the fetal membranes
rapidly differentiate and expand. The amnion (AM) closely enshrouds the embryo separated
from it by narrow space called the amnionic cavity (AMC) lled with amnionic uid. The origi-
nal blastocyst wall differentiates into three regions: a small chorion (CH), a vascular yolk sac
placenta (VYS), and a non-vascular yolk sac placenta (NVYS). The two major regions of the
yolk sac placenta are separated by a large collecting blood vessel, the sinus terminalis (ST). The
third fetal membrane, the allantois (AL), is depicted developing in the extraembryonic coelom
(EEC). The endoderm (EN) and ectoderm (EC) also are shown. (Krause and Cutts, Acta Anat.
An eleven-day opossum em-
bryo enshrouded by the am-
niotic sac. Amniotic uid lies
between this fetal membrane
and the opossum embryo. The
surrounding yolk sac placenta
has been removed. Note the
position of the heart in the
chest cavity of this partially
transparent embryo. (Krause
and Cutts, Anat. Anz. 161:
The result of the forming opossum embryo extending into the central cavity of the embryonic
sphere (the original blastocyst) is that two fetal membranes come to surround the embryo. The
amnion, which forms an enveloping sac closest to the embryo and is derived largely from the
proamnion and the early yolk sac placenta, which forms from the surrounding blastocyst wall
following the entry of the opossum into the central cavity of the blastocyst.
After these events have occurred, the developing yolk sac placenta of the opossum can be
subdivided into two major regions: a vascular yolk sac placenta (trilaminar omphalopleure)
formed of trophectoderm, vascularized mesoderm, and endoderm and a non-vascular yolk
sac placenta (bilaminar omphalopleure) formed only by trophectoderm and endoderm. The
non-vascular region represents that region of the original embryonic sphere never invaded by
mesoderm and the sinus terminalis separates the non-vascular region from the vascular region
of the yolk sac placenta.
As the surrounding shell membrane breaks down during the tenth prenatal day, the yolk sac
placenta expands rapidly but only the vascular region establishes contact with the uterine lin-
ing epithelium. The vascularized region of the yolk sac placenta continues to expand and by
the eleventh prenatal day covers the elaborate folds and crypts of the uterine lining. The sinus
Following the entrance of the
opossum embryo into the blasto-
cyst interior and its acquisition of
a surrounding amniotic sac, the
remaining and surrounding blas-
tocyst wall becomes transformed
into a structure known as the yolk
sac placenta. Thus, by this stage
the opossum embr yo is surrounded
by two fetal membranes: an inner
amniotic sac and an outer yolk sac
placenta. The latter consists of two
regions separated by a large col-
lecting blood vessel called the sinus
terminalis (arrows). In one region,
the vascular yolk sac placenta (V),
small blood vessels develop in the
mesodermal layer. This vascular-
ized region establishes an intimate relationship with the uterine epithelium but does not fuse
with or invade the latter. It is this region of the yolk sac placenta that is involved in respiration
and absorbs and transmits nutrients from the uterus to the embryo. The remaining region, the
non-vascular yolk sac placenta (N), lacks mesoderm and as a result does not become vascular-
ized. It may be involved in the absorption of nutrients to a limited degree. (Krause and Cutts,
Acta Anat. 123: 1985).
terminalis continues to clearly dene the boundaries of the vascular yolk sac placenta. Once
established, the intimate relationship between the uterine lining and the vascularized region
of the yolk sac placenta remains unchanged until birth. Although closely associated with the
uterine epithelium, cells of the trophectoderm (which form the outer layer of the yolk sac
placenta) never attach directly to or invade the uterine lining as occurs in most eutherian
mammals. Thus, despite numerous earlier accounts referring to eutherian mammals as “the
placental mammals”, marsupials also have a placenta called a yolk sac placenta or a cho-
riovitelline type of placenta. The opossum yolk sac placenta is different from the yolk sac of
birds, reptiles, and the monotremes in that it never contains a true yolk substance.
It is important to understand that the cells making up the uterine lining epithelium during
the last three days of gestation also differ markedly in structure from cells forming the lining
epithelium during the rst nine days of the gestation period. The uterine lining through the
ninth day of gestation is very glandular and consists of a thick pseudostratied columnar
lining epithelium with scattered ciliated cells. Scattered ciliated cells and tall secretory cells
also form the uterine glands. The secretory cells have structural features that indicate that it
is this cell type which is responsible for synthesizing materials and secreting them into the
uterine cavity to be used by the developing opossum embryo. At this time (the rst nine days
of the twelve and a half day gestation period) the yolk sac placenta has yet to form and the
embryonic spheres are oating free within the uterine secretions. From prenatal day ten until
birth, cells forming the uterine lining epithelium become simple columnar in structure, lack
cilia, and are lled with secretory vacuoles containing lipid droplets and proteins. The number
of uterine glands present decreases. These observations suggest that the nutritive role of the
glands in the uterus to be taken over or at least supplemented by cells forming the uterine lin-
ing epithelium during the last three days of gestation in the opossum. Thus, uterine epithelial
cells and cells of the trophectoderm are active in the transport of nutritive materials. Uterine
lining epithelial cells transport these materials into the uterine cavity where they are absorbed
by cells of the trophectoderm. They then enter the vasculature of the yolk sac placenta and are
transported to the developing embryo by umbilical vessels. The transport of materials reaches
its peak during the last three days of the gestation period at the time when the body of the
embryo is established and an explosive amount of growth takes place. Both the bilaminar and
trilaminar regions of the yolk sac placenta are thought to be involved in the uptake of uterine
secretions (histotrophes). In addition, the trilaminar portion is believed to be important for
Both the opossum embryo and a forming third fetal membrane (the allantois) remain free
within a pocket of the yolk sac placenta. The allantois develops as a ventral outgrowth from
the forming hindgut region of the opossum embryo during the middle of the tenth prenatal
day and extends into the extraembryonic coelom. With continued development the allantois
expands away from the embryo proper and accumulates a yellow/amber colored uid to form
a balloon-like vesicle, the allantoic sac. The allantois continues to expand and reaches its
maximum size during the twelfth prenatal day. The enlargement of the allantois is due to the
accumulation of materials produced by the embryonic (mesonephric) kidneys, which begin
to function during the latter part of the tenth prenatal day. The allantois never establishes a
rm relationship with either the chorion or the yolk sac placenta, which occurs in many other
The allantois of an eleven day opossum em-
bryo appears as a large balloon-like vesicle
that contains a yellow/amber colored uid.
In the opossum this structure functions as a
storage vesicle during the last three days of
gestation and holds materials produced by the
embryonic kidneys. It does not become part
of the placenta in the opossum. The amnion
and surrounding yolk sac placenta have been
removed. (Krause and Cutts, Anat. Rec. 211:
At birth, the young opossums take a different route to the urogenital sinus than the sperm took
after mating which lead to fertilization. Following mating, sperm of the opossum pass through
two separate vaginal canals, two separate cervices, and two separate uteri to the upper regions
of two separate oviducts where fertilization takes place. At birth, the young opossums do not
pass through the vaginal canals but instead pass from the uteri to a centrally located birth
canal called the median or pseudo-vaginal canal. The pseudo-vaginal canal forms in a loose
connective tissue that lies between the vaginal culs-de-sac and the anterior end of the urogeni-
tal sinus at the time of birth. The newly formed passageway is simply a split or separation in
the connective tissue at this location and after the birth process may contain fragments of fetal
membranes and scattered blood clots. This cleft within the connective tissue disappears soon
after birth and reforms with the birth of each new litter. What factors control the formation
and reabsorption of the pseudo-vaginal canal in the opossum are unknown.
A scanning electron micrograph of the decid-
uous claws from a twelve-day opossum em-
bryo. These claws are essential for grasping
the mother’s abdominal fur as the newborn
opossum crawls, without help by the mother,
from the birth canal to the safety of the pouch.
Following nipple attachment, these claws are
shed and the permanent set of nails form dur-
ing the protracted postnatal period. (Krause
and Cutts, Anat. Anz. 161: 1986).
Journey to the Pouch
The newborn opossums climb unaided by the mother from the opening of the birth canal to
the pouch using their well-developed forelimbs and clawed digits.
During the birth process, the female usually sits on her haunches, curls over somewhat and
approximates the opening of the birth canal to an area beneath the pouch thereby shorten-
ing the distance the newborn opossums must travel to locate and enter the pouch. The tiny
forepaws of these newborn animals are capable of grasping, and with their clawed digits grasp
the mother’s fur and wriggle their way to the pouch. The newborn opossum exhibits a swim-
ming motion (overhand stroke) where the head and neck are exed to one side followed by the
forward movement of the opposite foreleg. The head and neck are then exed to the opposite
side while the deciduous claws of the forepaw clasp the abdominal fur of the mother. As the
forepaw is pulled back toward the newborn opossum it is pushed forward. In a short while (the
journey from the birth canal to the pouch usually takes between two and four minutes), the
newborn opossum enters the relatively large space of the pouch, tangled with large, coarse
curly hairs among which are usually thirteen tiny teats.
Despite the embryonic nature of the brain and spinal cord of the opossum at birth, the new-
born has acquired enough neuromuscular control to permit it to crawl from the birth canal to
the pouch unaided by the mother. Recent scientic evidence has shown that the neuromuscular
system controlling head and forelimb movement as well as body orientation is coordinated
with the sense of smell and touch and the ability to sense gravity. Newborn opossums
always orient and crawl away from gravity (this activity is referred to as being negatively geo-
tropic) and as a result the opossums travel upward toward the pouch as the mother sits on her
haunches. A band of about twenty sensory hair cells appear in the forming utricle of the inner
ear mechanism about twenty-four hours prior to birth.
These sensory hair cells give the newborn opossum the capacity to sense the direction of
gravity. Likewise, olfactory bipolar nerve cells appear in the opossum nasal cavity just prior
to birth and are located immediately interior to the openings of the external nares (nostrils).
Nerve processes (axons) from these sensory nerve cells have been traced coursing directly
into the developing opossum brain just prior to birth. Thus, the opossum also is born with a
keen sense of smell, a sense that it uses to guide itself to the safety of the pouch. Prior to the
birth of her litter, the mother opossum assumes a position where she sits on her haunches. She
thoroughly licks and cleanses the vulva area, grooms the abdominal fur between the birth
canal and the pouch, as well as teat area within the pouch. The instinctive licking behavior of
the mother is thought not only to cleanse the migratory pathway used by the newborn young
to gain access to the pouch area and nipple attachment, but also serves to provide olfactory
cues via the saliva which aid in guiding the young in which direction to crawl. How newborn
opossums are able to recognize such cues without prior experience is unknown. Once the
pouch is located and entered, the head of the newborn opossum is moved in wide arcs and
when the sensitive snout touches a teat it is immediately sucked into the mouth using its large
well-developed tongue. Therefore, tactile cues of the snout also are important in the nal step
for the location and attachment to a teat.
Thus, the most essential structures needed for survival immediately after birth are the most
advanced in their development and include: a functional utricle, well developed forelimbs with
opposable digits and deciduous claws, large open nostrils and a region of olfactory epithelium
in the developing snout with connections to the brain, a well innervated snout sensitive to
touch and temperature, and a large open mouth with a well developed tongue. The remaining
organs are embryonic in appearance and continue their develop when the young are within the
safety of the pouch.
A thin layer of tightly adherent cells called the periderm covers the entire opossum embryo
immediately prior to birth. The cells of the periderm expand to cover the developing eyes, ex-
ternal ears (pinna) and ear canals (external auditor y meatus) and contribute to the collar-like
structure around the mouth called the oral shield.
A scanning electron micrograph of the snout
of an opossum just prior to birth shows sev-
eral structural features essential for the opos-
sums survival: large open external nares
(nostrils), a large mouth containing a large
well developed tongue, and an oral shield with
its characteristic scalloped appearance. Just
interior to the orices of the external nares
lies a patch of olfactory epithelium that pro-
vides the newborn with a sense of smell used
to guide the young to the pouch. The snout and
oral shield contain nerve endings sensitive to
touch and temperature that aid in the loca-
tion of teats (nipples) as the newborn moves
its head in wide arcs once within the pouch.
Once touched by the snout, the teat is immedi-
ately sucked into the mouth with the aid of the
large tongue. (Krause and Cutts, Anat. Anz.
The surface features of individual cells forming the periderm are clearly illustrated by this
scanning electron micrograph. The periderm covers the entire external surface of the newborn
opossum and is thought to prevent dehydration and bacterial invasion during the rst weeks
of postnatal life in the pouch. Individual cells appear as irregularly shaped paving stones or
tiles. The circular structure within each cell is called the nucleus and contains each cell’s DNA.
(Krause et al., J. Anat. 125: 1978).
As a result of the growth of cells forming the periderm, the opossum, at birth, is sealed within
this protective layer of cells that are thought to prevent dehydration as well as form the initial
barrier against bacterial invasion until the immune system becomes active. The only openings
to the external environment are the two large nostrils and the opening at the apex of the snout
for the mouth.
9. Postnatal Life
Once a teat has been secured, the presumptive lips begin to fuse beginning at the lateral
angles of the mouth and proceed over the following two-three days until only a small circu-
lar orice remains at the apex of the mouth to permit the entrance of the teat into the mouth.
Cells of the periderm continue to expand and aid in forming a tight seal around the teat of the
mother. The enlargement of that part of the teat which lies within the mouth of the newborn
opossum results in its becoming a bulbous structure that acts to permanently anchor the
young to the mother. Although closely apposed, the tissues of the mother’s teat and that which
lines the mouth of the young opossum never fuse during this period. As a result, the young
opossum will remain permanently attached to the same teat for about the rst sixty days of
postnatal life. This period of pouch life is known as the xation period. If the young are
removed (pulled off ) from the teat during this period, the forming mouths are torn and the
young are unable re-attach themselves back on the teats because the denitive lips have yet to
form. The end result is that the young will die.
Opossum neonates as well as young of other marsupials are able to suckle; however, the me-
chanics of taking milk from the mother differs from that used by suckling eutherian mammals.
In eutherains, the nursing young compress the teat between the tongue and forming hard pal-
ate (roof of the mouth) beginning at the base of the teat and extending the compression toward
its tip, thereby stripping out the contained milk. As pressure at the base of the teat is released,
it rells with milk due to the contraction of specialized cells (myoepithelial cells) within the
mammary tissue, a phenomenon known as milk letdown. In the opossum, the teat lies within
a shallow groove on the tongue surface and the mouth is sealed due the fusion of lips around
the entrance point of the teat at the tip of the snout. As the opossum sucks, the entire tongue
is lowered through the contraction of muscle cells that extend perpendicularly from the dorsal
surface to the base of the tongue. As the surface of the tongue is lowered, a negative pressure
is created within the mouth and milk is drawn from the teat. The ducts within the teats rell
by the mechanism of milk letdown as in eutherian mammals once the pressure is relieved.
Thus, young opossums must suckle to obtain milk from the mother, as do most other mam-
The epiglottis of the pouch young opossum is intranarial and projects into the posterior
nares at the back of the nasal cavity. Because of its position and tubular shape, milk can pass
around both sides of the epiglottis to enter the esophagus without interrupting breathing, al-
lowing the young opossum to breathe and nurse simultaneously. Air is taken in exclusively
through the nose and after weaning the epiglottal elongation regresses to the adult form.
Opossum milk and that of other marsupials differs substantially from that produced by eu-
therian mammals. The reproductive strategy of marsupial (metatherian) mammals is based
primarily on the lactation phase rather than intrauterine development of the young, which is
the primary reproductive investment made by eutherian mammals. It should be understood
that the emphasis on lactation by marsupials, in contrast to intrauterine development, is an
alternative reproductive strategy and not a more primitive form of mammalian reproduction.
In eutherian mammals only minor changes in milk composition occur during the entire lacta-
tion period. In contrast, major differences are found in the composition of marsupial milk at
different phases of lactation. In the early stages of milk production (lactation), opossum milk
is dilute and daily production is low. In later stages of lactation opossum milk is concentrated,
shows an increase in the amount of protein, and production is high. Water is the major compo-
nent of opossum milk at all stages of lactation. However, other differences between marsupial
and eutherian milk have been found. In the Virginia opossum for example, total solids, hexose,
protein and lipid increase progressively during the rst weeks of lactation. Carbohydrate
and lipid levels then fall later in the lactation period whereas protein is the main constituent
of milk solids at all stages of lactation. There are no consistent changes in the concentration
of potassium, sodium, or magnesium during the lactation period in the opossum. In contrast
A newborn opossum photographed prior to its attachment to a teat. Note the large mouth, the
nostrils, and the forelimbs the digits of which are tipped with deciduous claws. Compare the
advanced development of the forelimb with the immature appearance of the immotile hind limb.
The pigmented portion of the eye (the retina) can be seen beneath the transparent periderm and
to these ions, calcium ion concentration increases during the rst six weeks of lactation,
maintains a concentration of about 100 mM/l until about ten weeks postpartum, which then
declines to about 65 mM/l at the end of lactation.
The total dependence by the young of the opossum on milk during the rst sixty days of lacta-
tion suggests that other substances, in addition to nutrients, may be acquired via this route.
Immunoglobulins are known to be transferred from the mother opossum to her young solely
through the colostrum and milk. Whether or not other maternally derived factors (hormones
and/or peptides) also are transferred to the offspring from the mother through the milk is un-
known at present; however, a protein known as parathyroid hormone-related peptide has been
identied in the milk of the opossum.
Appearance of Pouch Young Opossums
Opossums are about the size of a honeybee at birth and light pink in color. The newborn opos-
sum weighs about 0.16 grams (0.006 of an ounce) and measures about 10 mm in length.
The animals are born naked, blind, and deaf. The most obvious external morphological fea-
ture of the early pouch young opossums is their overall embryonic appearance. A large mouth
and nostrils characterize the head. The forelimbs and paws are well developed and functional
which is in contrast to the hindlimbs, which are only in the paddle stage of development and
immotile. Deciduous claws tip the toes of the forepaws. By the end of the second week in the
pouch, further development in addition to overall size becomes apparent. The external ears
are now visible as swellings on the sides of the head. The deciduous claws have been shed
from the digits of the forepaws and the hindlimbs are rapidly developing. The eyes remain
tightly closed and the mouth tightly sealed around the teat. The upper and lower lips become
well dened by the seventh week of postnatal life, but remain fused to one another. The
external ears are visible by this time and a light, downy hair that is more prominent along the
spine covers the skin. By the end of the tenth postnatal week the young opossums are quite
well developed. The eyes are beginning to open but the upper and lower lips remain fused at
the corners. The young animals can let go of the teat, are freely mobile, and leave and return
to the pouch. The young opossums are fully furred except for the ventral (belly) surface. The
hindlimbs and forelimbs now show a similar degree of development.
At the end of the eleventh postnatal week, the young opossums are completely furred and the
coarse guard hairs are a prominent feature. The eyes are fully opened and the lips are com-
pletely separated. Near the end of the lactation period, the young opossums may be left in a
nest or denning area while the mother forages for food. This latter part of the lactation period
is often referred to as the nest phase of lactation.
The young opossums are not completely weaned until about 96-108 days after birth. Some
young, particularly those of the second litter, may continue denning with the mother or other
littermates for three to four months before becoming completely independent and solitary.
Sexual maturity is attained by about six to eight months.
A major feature that distinguishes marsupial from eutherian mammals is the shor t period of
intrauterine development and the immaturity of their young followed by a protracted period of
development within a pouch. The opossum has a remarkably short gestation period that lasts
only twelve and a half days. This is the shortest gestation period of any mammal. Con-
sequently, opossum young are in a very immature state of development at the time of birth.
Major body systems such as the digestive, urogenital, respiratory, and endocrine systems are
only in the initial stages of development at the time of birth, with the majority of development
and growth taking place during the postnatal period while the young are within the protection
of the pouch. Therefore, most of organogenesis and all of fetal development occurs when the
young are in the pouch. In general, the various organs of the opossum show the same general
pattern of development typical of other mammals. However, some subtle modications do oc-
cur early in development, which presumably compensate for the short period of gestation, and
increase the chances of survival in the new external environment of the pouch. The brain and
organs involved with special sensory reception (sight, hearing, and smell) of the opossum, as
with the majority of organ systems, develop almost entirely in the postnatal period. However,
essential sub-components of the various organs and systems do develop precociously that al-
low the very immature opossum to survive the initial events after birth. For example, specic
regions of the brain are functional at birth to coordinate movement of the forelimbs with
information provided by special sensory receptors. Approximately 91% of brain development
occurs after the opossums’ migration and attachment to a teat within the pouch.
Acquisition of Sight
Ocular development in the opossum essentially follows the same basic pattern as in man and
other eutherian mammals. Because of the short gestation period, it is not until around six
weeks after birth that most components of the adult eye are identiable, although in an imma-
ture form. These include the corneal layer, the iris, ciliary processes, retinal pigment epitheli-
um/tapetum, and laminated retina with immature photoreceptors. It is not until the opossums
are about nine to ten weeks old that the lids begin to open and at this time the structural de-
velopment of the iris and ciliary body is complete. There is an apparent central-to-peripheral
gradient in maturation with regard to the retina, which remains immature peripherally even
at thirteen weeks after birth. It is assumed that the young opossums can see lights and shapes
with the opening of the lids but it may very well be that full visual acuity is not achieved until
much later in development nearer the time of weaning.
Acquisition of Hearing
The ear of the opossum like other mammalian forms consists of three basic subdivisions:
an external ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The external ear consists of the auricle (pinnae)
and the ear canal (external auditory meatus) that conducts sound waves to the eardrum of
the middle ear. The external auditory meatus develops from the rst pharyngeal groove and
bounding arches. The pinnae begins to form around the orice of the external auditory meatus
during the eleventh prenatal day; however, just prior to birth the periderm covers the forming
pinnae and the meatus becomes lled with peridermal cells.
As a result of the growth of the peridermal layer of cells, the head of the newborn opossum
appears smooth and the only openings present are those of the nostrils and mouth. Two weeks
after birth the pinnae appear as swellings of skin on both sides of the head. It is not until about
the end of the sixth week that the pinnae become visible as independent aps of skin. The
external auditory meatus is open by the end of the seventh week after birth but continues to
contain regions lled by peridermal cells. The auricles continue to enlarge until about ninety
days into the postnatal period when they acquire most of the adult conguration and size.
The middle ear cavity contains the auditory ossicles, a chain of three bones (malleus, incus,
and stapes) that unite the eardrum of the middle ear to the inner ear. The three ossicles consist
of cartilage at birth. The cartilage of the ossicles is slowly replaced by bone and this process
is not entirely complete even at seventy-eight days into the postnatal period. The formed
eardrum lies somewhat horizontally to the external auditory meatus at this time, but as the
meatus continues to grow it gradually becomes more erect and assumes the adult position.
The inner ear consists of two major subdivisions. One is referred to as the vestibular labyrinth
and consists of the three semicircular canals and two larger chambers, the utricle and saccule.
These structures are important for sensing motion, angular movement of the head, position in
space and balance. They function primarily in coordination and regulating locomotion and
equilibrium. The second major subdivision is called the cochlea and functions in the reception
of sounds from the external environment (hearing).
About twenty sensory hair cells appear within the developing utricle of the opossum just prior
to birth. These cells are thought to be responsible for the negative geotropic behavior, the
instinct of newborn opossums to crawl upward in the opposite direction of gravity, and con-
tribute in guiding the newborn in the direction of the pouch. The remainder of the vestibular
portion of the inner ear does not become functional until about the sixth week of postnatal life
when righting (vestibular) reexes are observed. Likewise, the structure of the hearing mecha-
nism (organ of Corti) within the cochlea of the inner ear is not fully established until this time.
About fty days after birth is the earliest time at which acoustic reexes can be observed.
Acquisition of Olfaction (Smell)
In the adult opossum the olfactory bulbs of the brain are remarkably large and measure about
12 mm in length. These str uctures make up a major portion of the opossum brain. The large
olfactory bulbs are indicative of the large surface area occupied by the olfactory epithelium
in the nasal cavity of the snout and the importance of this sense in the opossum. The opos-
sum has an extremely keen sense of smell. Mature appearing olfactory nerve cells are present
in opossum olfactory epithelium prior to birth, but are restricted in distribution to just inside
the orices of the external nares along the roof of the developing nasal cavity. The olfactory
nerve cells have processes that can be traced to the developing brain of the newborn opossum.
These olfactor y nerve cells decrease in number after birth and eventually disappear from this
region of the nasal cavity by the end of the second postnatal week. Following teat attachment
the snout begins to elongate and restructuring occurs within the nasal cavity. The olfactory
epithelium then re-appears later in development within the more protected regions of the nasal
cavity and with time covers extensive regions on the turbinates, nasal septum, and roof of the
nasal cavity. It is quite signicant that mature olfactory nerve cells whose axons can be traced
into the developing brain can be found immediately interior to the openings of the nostrils pri-
or to birth in the opossum. Such a strategic position for functioning nerve cells in the newborn
opossum strongly suggests that olfactory cues are used to guide the sightless, deaf newborn
from the birth canal to the sanctuary of the pouch for teat location, attachment, and survival.
Acquisition of Locomotion
Although the newborn opossum is able to crawl unassisted from the birth canal to the pouch
using its precocious forelimbs, opossums are unable to walk until much later in the postnatal
period. It is not until about seventy days into the postnatal period that the structural develop-
ment of the hindlimb nally “catches up” with the development of the forelimb. If the young
opossums are examined in the pouch two weeks after birth the limbs do show signs of spon-
taneous movement that resemble a walking pattern but it is not until about four weeks of age
that opossums can support their own weight on their forelimbs for the rst time. Opossums
are able to support their own weight and step for the rst time, but not walk, by about the end
of the sixth postnatal week. At the end of the seventh week opossums can stand and support
their weight on all four limbs but are still unable to walk. Opossums begin to walk and run
effectively between seventy-six and eighty-four days after birth.
During the rst few weeks (about sixty days) of postnatal life young opossums are perma-
nently attached to the same teat of the mother due to the mechanical swelling of the teat within
the mouth cavity and the development of the mouth around the teat effectively sealing it inside.
During this period of time mater nal care is limited to keeping the pouch area clean and main-
taining some control over thermoregulation by relaxing and contracting the pouch muscula-
ture thereby opening and closing the pouch to the environment. The latter activity is important
as the early pouch young opossums cannot regulate their own body temperatures and rely on
the mother to maintain temperature. When the young opossums reach an age of about nine
weeks their brains become sufciently developed so that the young can at this point begin to
control and regulate their own body temperatures. Other than these activities, early mater nal
care appears to be closely correlated with the normal self-grooming activities of the mother.
The female opossum’s behavior becomes more oriented toward the care of the young as they
begin to emerge from the pouch (about seventy days after they were born). As the young begin
to leave and enter the pouch, the mother becomes more attentive towards them and begins a
clicking vocalization to aid the young in recognizing her. Likewise, the young make clicking
or barking sounds with their lips and mouths to remain in contact with the mother. It is during
the later days of pouch life, when the young are no longer permanently anchored to the same
teat and begin exploration within and outside the pouch that the mortality rate of the young
rises. During this period the young opossums stay in very close proximity to the mother.
Females often express an interest in the young of others when they are encountered and have
been observed snifng and licking them.
The physical and behavioral development of the young at weaning is rapid and occurs be-
tween ninety-ve and one hundred and eleven days after birth. At this time the young may not
follow the mother when she leaves the nest but appear to become more independent of both
maternal and sibling inuences. Young react with fear if they encounter an unknown adult or
other animals. During such encounters they have been observed to hiss, growl, and quickly re-
treat. This time is a critical period in the life cycle of the opossum, as the young must have the
muscular strength and physical coordination necessary to nd food and avoid and/or escape
predators as they go off on their own. The end result is a solitary, independent creature.
10. Relationship to Man
The opossum is classied as a furbearer by most state agencies dealing with wildlife. However,
hunters or trappers do not harvest the opossum in large numbers as its pelt has little value on
today’s market. In the past opossum fur was used primarily for trim on less expensive coats
Opossums are very benecial as scavengers and carrion feeders and function to keep the en-
vironment clean. In addition, they are important in rodent and insect control as well as eating
snails and slugs. In this regard they are often referred to as nature’s “sanitary engineers.”
Because opossums will consume any or all forms of vegetable and animal matter they are
valuable indicators of the overall health of the environment. They also perform a valuable
function in the spread of various seeds (persimmons and other fruits) in the environment as
these pass undigested through their digestive tract.
The Virginia opossum is of scientic interest from an evolutionary point of view because it is
thought to have retained some features similar to those associated with the original stock of
both South American and Australasian metatherian radiations. The opossum as well as most
members of the family Didelphidae are considered among the most “primitive” or “unspecial-
ized” of the living metatherians and their generalized morphology also may have retained
features that resemble those of the very rst therian mammals. Of these, the opossum has
received the most scientic attention because historically it was the rst Didelphid found and
because as a common mammal over much of North America was easily obtained. In contrast,
the Australasian forms continued to evolve after the separation of Australia from Gondwana-
land and their morphology changed into the variety of forms recognized today as they adapted
to occupy a wide range of ecological niches.
The developing opossum is of particular scientic interest in the medical community because
of its very short gestation period (about twelve and a half days) and is a species in which
“premature birth” is the normal condition. Indeed, most organ development occurs during the
postnatal period when the young are within the pouch and can be examined and observed
directly. It is thought that by studying the developing organs of the young from this spe-
cies, which normally are born at such an immature state, a greater understanding might be
achieved concerning the development and care of human infants born prematurely.
The short gestation period and simple placental system of the opossum make it an attractive
model for studying the initial differentiation and development of organs in tissue culture.
Opossum fetuses gathered at ten days gestation have been grown in tissue culture using roller
tubes until term. They are one of only a few species in which near term fetuses have been
grown in tissue culture successfully. The reason for the success using this species is directly
related to the opossums’ embryology. At ten days gestation the yolk sac placenta only lightly
adheres to the endometrial lining of the uterus and can teased away easily and transferred
undamaged to a culture vessel. Because damage to the fetal membranes can be avoided, the
opossums can be maintained in culture medium for the remainder of the gestation period (two
and a half days) until term. As the last three days of gestation is that period when the majority
of initial organogenesis occurs in the opossum, opossum fetuses grown in culture holds prom-
ise as a biomedical tool in which to study chemicals and other factors (teratogenic agents) that
may cause birth defects. In addition, the pouch young opossum has proven to be an extremely
valuable biomedical model in which to study spinal cord regeneration following injury.
Threat to Human Health or Property
Although opossums often live in close proximity to human habitation, they seldom if ever are
the cause of serious problems for farmers, ranchers, or suburban homeowners. Opossums are
often blamed for raiding trash containers, but more often than not, they are secondary in such
raids and are foraging in what remains following the previous activity of domestic animals
(dogs and cats) or raccoons. When pets are routinely fed outside and any excess food remains,
if discovered by an opossum, it will adapt that location as a feeding area. This activity can
be discouraged by simply removing the food source and when this is done the opossum will
move on to a new area in which to feed as is its habit.
The only potential threat opossums may pose to pets or domestic livestock is with regard to
horses. Opossums should be considered a threat to the health of horses and other equines
particularly if opossums den or feed where horses are being housed and/or have access to the
horses’ food/water source that can be contaminated. A protozoan known as Sarcocystis neu-
rona is thought to be a major contributing factor of a neurologic disease in horses known as
equine protozoal myeloencephalitis or EPM. Opossums are the denitive hosts, and horses
and other mammals are the aberrant hosts for this protozoan. If sporocysts (the larval form
or infectious agent in the next host) from the intestinal tract (via feces) of infected opossums
are ingested by horses in contaminated food or water, they are at high risk for contracting this
disease. Studies that examined the blood serum for antibodies against Sarcocystis neurona of
horses from the Rocky Mountain states demonstrated that these horses have a lower seroprev-
alence for this protozoan organism than horses from the eastern regions of the United States.
This data corresponds to areas of opossum population density.
Tips on Temporary Care of Orphans
Quite often during the summer months dead female opossums with a litter of young in her
pouch are found along a roadway after being stuck by a motor vehicle the previous evening.
The question that arises is: does one leave the young with the mother and let them die slowly
of exposure and starvation or should an effort be made in an attempt to rescue the young
opossums to be released back into the wild at a later date? It should also be kept in mind
that, in general, it is illegal in most states to care for opossums or other wildlife unless you
are licensed to do so by obtaining a Wildlife Rehabilitation Permit. Opossums should not be
A sleeping litter of young opossums rescued following the death of their mother killed on a
roadway. They have found some comfort by snuggling tight to the fur of a teddy bear shown at
the left. The two young opossums shown at the right are about seventy-ve days old. They are
exploring their temporary teddy bear mother. The opossum to the left yawns after waking to
take part in this activity.
Orphaned pouch young opossums can be made most comfortable by temporarily rearing them
in a conned space such as a large pocket or an old sock. Wildlife rescuers in Australia have
used similar but larger “articial pouches” to raise orphaned kangaroo joeys. The opossum
shown in the left photo was asleep in a pocket but poked its head out to temporarily explore
the surroundings when this photograph was taken. A young opossum peaks out of a sock in the
right photo to survey the surroundings while its three littermates remain within the comfortable
connement of the sock.
A litter of older opossums (left) photographed in a den or nest made from straw in the bottom
of a barrel. Right photograph, dinner time.
After eating food provided, if given the opportunity young opossums will explore a yard or eld
and instinctively begin to hunt. They eagerly explore using their keen sense of smell and hear-
ing to locate beetles, moths, and grubs. The very young opossum at the left is actively “bug-
ging” in pursuit of prey. The opossum to the right has secured its favorite prey, a June beetle.
captured in the wild and the young removed from the mother in an attempt to raise the young
just for the sake of raising opossums. Likewise, if a den of young opossums is accidentally
discovered in the wild, these animals should be left alone and allowed to make their own way
in the world.
The following comments are directed to those compassionate individuals who have discovered
a dead opossum whose young are still alive and wish to do something in an attempt to save
the young. If possible get the young to a wildlife rehabilitation organization or a licensed
wildlife rehabilitator with experience in raising opossums. Unfortunately, more often than
not, it has been our experience that if a humane society or various state or federal agencies are
contacted they will simply euthanize the animals, as they have neither the time nor money to
invest in opossums, which are considered common and rather ordinary. Indeed, many regard
the opossum as vermin.
When the young are removed from the mother there are two immediate concerns that need to
be addressed prior to taking them to an experienced individual or organization: dehydration
and the cold. A warm Pedialyte solution diluted with water (one part Pedialyte to two parts
water) should be offered slowly with an eyedropper as soon as possible. Young pouch opos-
sums cannot regulate their own body temperature and are therefore dependent on the body
temperature of the mother when they are in the protection of the pouch. The animals should
be wrapped in smooth cloth (old t-shirt or sweatshirt type of cloth) or a fabric that is ravel-free.
Guess whose coming to dinner (left). The opossum (right photograph) was rescued as a pouch
young animal (Joey) following the death of her mother along a roadway. Because of a leg in-
jury she was not released back into the wild and has become an affectionate member of this
They then need to be placed in a box with a heating source (heating pad set on low or an incu-
bator of some type). The temperature should be maintained at about 95º F with about 70% hu-
midity if an incubator is used. Opossum young prefer a conned (small) space that mimics the
pouch. If kept for a longer period of time a large old sock or a pocket of some type can be used
and is often a comfortable, preferred sleeping place for young opossums. If a sock is used the
young should be stimulated to eliminate wastes after feeding by gently rubbing the cloacal
area with a moist warm cloth. A similar trick is often used when raising young orphaned dogs
and cats to keep the bedding area as clean as possible.
If the animals need to be maintained for a length of time while a wildlife rehabilitator is
located the following tips are offered that have been used successfully in maintaining young
opossums prior to their release back into the wild.
If the young are quite small (four to ve inches) they can be fed with milk replacer for pup-
pies and should be provided by an eyedropper. Slightly larger animals can be fed with same
formula to which a whipped banana has been added and the mixture given by eyedropper. If
the eyes of the opossum young are completely open they can be offered water and food in a
jar lid or some type of small shallow container. Moistened lite dog chow or kitten chow should
also be given as a food source. The diet of slightly older young should be supplemented with
mealworms, crickets, or June bugs as well as chopped fruit and vegetable matter. High protein
diets of red meats, hearts, or liver should not be offered to the pouch young as this type of
diet may result in metabolic bone disease of the young. Metabolic bone disease has a crippling
effect on limb development.
If the young can be maintained until they reach a good body size, the juvenile stage (about 19
inches in length or 120 days old), they have an excellent chance of surviving when released
back into the wild. Unlike many wild mammals of similar age, the young opossum seems
to rely more on instinctive rather than learned behaviors in order to survive. How many
behaviors the young opossum learns from its mother is unknown at present. What has been
observed is that when even quite young and having been maintained in captivity, they will in-
stinctively hunt insects and grubs they either smell or hear in a lawn and eat them. A favorite
insect in the Midwest is the June bug.
If young juveniles of good size are released near a water source and if they can avoid preda-
tors their chances of survival are very good as they seem to have an uncanny knack for nding
food. It should be remembered that opossums are omnivorous and will eat almost any plant
or animal material they nd. Therefore, they should be released near water and away from
predators if possible, particularly away from areas frequented by cats and dogs. It should be
understood that if opossums are kept for a length of time and handled daily to maturity, opos-
sums will not acquire a fear of man, become affectionate, and develop a pattern of behavior
similar to other domesticated mammals.
Both young opossums (those old enough to explore outside the pouch) and adults have inter-
esting toilet habits and most are easily trained. If they are kept within a conned area, a large
covered pen for example, observe the toilet area they have selected to use. Once chosen, even
an entire litter of opossums will usually continue to use this selected area. The caregiver can
then simply place a cat litter box or papers in this area to aid in keeping the housing facility
clean and sanitary. This simple observation can make the maintenance of these animals much
easier than for most wild mammals. Unfortunately, there are occasional opossums (usually
adult females) that prefer to use a water source as their toilet area, which they foul. Movement
of the water source has little effect as they actively seek it out and continue to use the water as
the preferred toilet area.
When sleeping, opossums hang upside down by their tails in trees. Opossums are terrestrial
animals and spend the vast majority of their time on the ground and not in trees. They climb
up into trees primarily to escape predators or are in search of food. They do not sleep in the
branches of trees like birds. Instead, they make dens in a variety of places on the ground
and curl up to sleep within the protection of the den, as do many other mammals. The tail
is prehensile and used as an aid to help with climbing and with balance during walking and
running. It is also used to carr y bundles of denning material. An adult opossum rarely if ever
hangs solely by its tail and, if it did, could do so for only a limited amount of time due to its
own body weight.
Opossums breed through the nose. The ridiculous notion that the male opossum copulates
with the female through her nose is thought to have occur red during colonial times as a result
of assumptions made by early European settlers. The idea for such a notion arose from the
observation that penis of the male is bid (forked) and the behavior that the female opossum
grooms her pouch immediately prior to the birth of a litter. It was assumed that when the
female placed her snout into the pouch (while grooming) she sneezed the young into the pouch
where they then developed.
Opossums will attack pets and livestock. The opossum is a very shy, non-aggressive animal
that usually avoids contact with other species unless they are smaller and represent potential
prey. The opossum will not attack typical pets such as dogs or cats and certainly not larger
livestock. Conict may arise, however, if pets are fed outside and excess food is left in the
feeding area. If the opossum discovers food it will enter such an area to feed on what is avail-
able. On occasion, the pets being fed (usually dogs) will sur prise the feeding opossum and
a conict will arise. Even then the opossum will try to escape to avoid confrontation and is
usually discovered cornered trying to defend itself.
Opossums are the dumbest of all mammals. Despite its small brain size relative to body mass,
the opossum when tested scientically performs as well as rats and other species on various
tests that measure intelligence. Its shy, non-aggressive demeanor and ease of handling when
captured have been interpreted by many as this species having a diminished mental capacity.
Nothing could be further from the truth as recent testing with regard to the opossum’s intel-
ligence has proven.
Opossums are dirty little animals and like rats, spread disease. The opossum like most other
animals in the wild are well groomed. Indeed, their very survival depends on being clean
and well groomed. If not, their protective fur coat will become matted and dirty and without
such a protective layer the animal will eventually die of exposure. The opossum appears quite
resistant to some viral diseases such as rabies, distemper, forms of feline hepatitis, and other
diseases that plague domestic pets. However, the opossum is heavily parasitized by a wide
variety of organisms, which are thought to contribute directly to its short life span.
Opossums are closely related to monkeys because they have similarly shaped hind feet. The
opossum is classied as a marsupial; monkeys are classied as primates. The similarities of
the hindfeet arose independently in these two widely different species. The opposable digit
on the hindfoot of each species evidently provided a specic advantage for each animal in its
Cutts, J.H., W.J. Krause (1983) Structure of the paws in Didelphis virginiana. Anat.
Hunsaker II, D (1977) The Biology of Marsupials. Academic Press, New York, London.
Krause, W.J., J.H. Cutts and C.R. Leeson (1978) Postnatal development of the epidermis in a
marsupial, Didelphis virginiana. J. Anat. 125:85-99.
Krause, W.J., J.H. Cutts (1979) Pairing of spermatozoa in the epididymis of the opossum (Di-
delphis virginiana): A scanning electron microscopic study. Arch. histol. Jap. 42:181-190.
Krause, W.J., J.H. Cutts (1983) Ultrastructural observations on the shell membrane of the
North American opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Anat. Rec. 207:335-338.
Krause, W.J., J.H. Cutts (1985) The allantois of the North American opossum (Didelphis
virginiana) with preliminary observations on the yolk sac endoderm and trophectoderm. Anat.
Krause, WJ, JH Cutts (1985) Placentation in the opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Acta Ana-
tomica. Vol.123: 156-171.
Krause, W.J., J.H. Cutts (1986) Scanning electron microscopic observations on developing
opossum embryos: days nine through twelve. Anat. Anz. 161:11-21.
Krause, WJ (1998) A review of histogenesis/organogenesis in the developing North American
opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Advances in Anatomy, Embryology and Cell Biology. Vol.
143 (Part I): Springer Verlag, Berlin, pp 143.
Krause, WJ (1998) A review of histogenesis/organogenesis in the developing North American
opossum (Didelphis virginiana). Advances in Anatomy, Embryology and Cell Biology. Vol.
143 (Part II): Springer Verlag, Berlin, pp120.
Additional information and references specic to the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virgin-
iana) can be found in a comprehensive bibliography entitled:
Krause, WJ (2001) Information Resources on the North American opossum (Didelphis virgin-
iana). A Bibliography on its Natural Histor y and use in Biomedical Research. AWIC Resource
Series Number 9. National Agricultural Library, USDA, Beltsville, Maryland.
The bibliography on the Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana Kerr, is also available as
an electronic publication located in the National Agricultural Library at the Animal Welfare
Information Center web site: http://www.nal.usda.gov/awic/pubs/opossum.htm