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Opossum with "babies on board," near Brier Hill, NY. Archive Photo of the Day 6/26/13: Bruce Dana
Opossum with "babies on board," near Brier Hill, NY. Archive Photo of the Day 6/26/13: Bruce Dana

Why Opossums are coming to the North Country, and why they look like they're made from spare parts

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Opossums may be thought of as a southern animal, but they are becoming more common in the North Country as they expand their range north and west. They are the only marsupial, or pouched mammal, in North America.

Martha Foley tells Curt Stager that they look a little weird, as if they were made from parts of other animals: the tail of a rat, the pouch of a kangaroo, funny little hands.

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Martha Foley: Have you seen any opossums recently? We've seen opposums in our neighborhood, which I don't remember from years ago, my childhood. Are they new, or am I just being more, observant? Are they bolder?

Curt Stager: It could be all of that, but there is evidence that opossums are expanding their range, farther north, but also farther west in some places, too. Some people think it might be related to the warmer winters we've had. They have a tough time in winter, but it could be other things as well. More people, too. They live well around people 'cause there's more food and shelter.

MF: I just remember thinking that they were a southern animal.

CS: Only recently we've been seeing them in and around the Adirondacks, too. We've had one coming to our bird feeder at night, in the middle of winter. Just off and on. They don't hibernate, so they have to be able to withstand the extreme cold. I don't know where this one goes to stay warm on really cold nights, but it's been coming back for months.

MF: They are a marsupial. The little babies emerge and then stay in a sack, like kangaroos and so on. Do we have any other marsupials in North America?

CS: It's our only marsupial. If you went back in geologic time, there used to be a lot in the Americas, but when the other mammals showed up they outcompeted them. So this is our only one that's left. There are other things they call possums in Australia and other places, but they're pretty much different from this one.

MF: They are weird looking, I will say that. They have the tails with no hair on them, they are pale, and they have great big eyes. Kinda creepy looking, there is something about them that's a little spooky.

CS: Yeah, a little devilish or something. And they're out at night oftentimes, too. You may have them around and not know it, but people monitor the spread of opossums by roadkill studies, because of course they get hit by cars and things. They're out at night and they have their nose down, they're foraging, and they may not notice the car coming. Of course, if they do the playing possum thing, that's not a good strategy for cars.

MF: Is that real, the playing opossum thing? Where you just collapse and pretend you're dead.

CS: Yeah, they actually do it. As far as I can tell, no one's figured out exactly how it works, but …they are really out for a couple minutes, or even hours…Sometimes they have a little nasty stuff coming out their mouths. They're not the only ones that do that. Hog-nosed snakes do it also.

MF: Pretend you're dead and decaying?

CS: But there is one myth about it. Their tails actually can wrap around things, like you see in cartoons and such, with the babies hanging off of trees and such. The adults can actually carry things in their tails, like nesting materials. But they don't normally do that, the tails are not that strong. 

MF: But they do have these funny hands, also. They're very odd. They sort of combine little bits and pieces of other things.

CS: Well it's really neat. Because it's furry and suckles its young, you say it's a mammal like any other. But really it's a separate branch of mammal evolution over millions of years.

MF: Because of the way they reproduce?

CS: It's that, but also their teeth are different. They have over fifty teeth in their mouth, more than your average mammal. So there are a lot of things different. It's like another take on what a mammal could be, and after all that change, all those millions of years, they have variations that the other mammals won't have. You talk about the hands. They do look like little hands, they're splayed out and they kind of have this waddling gait. And then you look at their back legs, and their thumbs are not on their front hands, but their back ones.

MF: So they can hang on to trees and stuff.

CS: Yeah. It's a prehensile opposable thumb on the back feet. The other toes will have claws, but the big old thumb will not. It's really interesting how things can change through time and come up with similar but slightly different variations of what a mammal is.

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