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Opossum
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Opossum

The word opossum (usually pronounced without the leading 'O', or with only a very slight schwa) refers either to the Virginia Opossum in particular, or more generally to any of the other marsupials of magnorder Ameridelphia. Opossums are the only marsupials in North America.

The name is from Algonquian wapathemwa, not Greek or Latin, so the plural is opossums, not opossa.

Opossums are 15-20 inches long and weigh between 9 and 13 pounds. They resemble large, fat, rats. Their coats are a dull grayish brown, other than on their faces, which are white. Opossums have long hairless prehensile tails, which can be used to grab branches and carry small objects. They also have hairless ears and a long, flat nose. Opposums have 50 teeth (most among land mammals) and opposable clawless thumbs on their rear limbs. Though some humans are fond of them, many consider them to be rather ugly.

Opossums are nocturnal and during the day sleep in dark, hidden areas. At night they are often seen in trees. During the day if you do run into one, it is often because someone has previously run over him!

The opossum diet includes bugs (including cockroaches), snails, mice and small rats. Some opossum lovers claim that they provide a valuable service to humans by competing with and eating other, more disease-ridden vermin. Like raccoons, opposums can be found in urban environments, where they eat pet food, rotten fruit, and various human garbage.

Opossums in captivity are known to engage in canibalism, though this is probably uncommon in the wild. An injured opossum should never be placed in captivity with healthy opossums.

The Virginia Opossum is noted for its reaction to threat, which is to feign death. From this behavior comes the phrase "playing possum", which is used to describe an attempt (by a possum or other creature) to pretend to be dead, injured, or just plain stupid with intent to deceive. This behavior should not be taken as an indication of docility, for under serious threat, an opossum will respond ferociously. While "playing possum", the opossum actually enters a near coma. It lies on its side, mouth open, tongue hanging out, with green fluid emitting from its anus. It is believed that the opossum has evolved this behavior to ward off predators, which often aren't interested in consuming prey which are already dead. Playing possum also convinces some large animals that the possum is no threat to their young, so they let it be. The opossum will "play possum" for 40 minutes up to four hours at a time. Opossums that appear to be dead but aren't displaying any clearly fatal injuries should be given the benefit of the doubt--don't bury them alive.

Though opossum is often pronounced, and even spelled possum, the latter word actually refers to various distantly related but broadly similar animals of magnorder Australidelphia, that are native to Australasia and are an introduced pest in New Zealand. This is a scientific definition but in everyday parlance possum and opossum are interchangeable, "possums" were originally called "opossums" and "opossums" are more often than not referred to as "possums". See possum.

See also: Pogo

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