What do most people see when they look at a Virginia opossum? A big pale rat, most likely an overnight roadkill victim. Not me. Me, I see a hero we don’t deserve.
Our wee ghost-faced friends are treated like little pariahs simply because their prime defense system is being extremely off-putting. Words cannot express how much I love that about them—all I can say is that I somehow find it extremely relatable.
I fear, however, that I may be in the minority. Most folks seem to think poorly of the opossum’s black-looking eyes floating in a pale face, footnoted with a crooked snarl, curled lips, and rows of what look like repurposed puppy teeth. Perhaps, its most-maligned feature is its naked fleshy tail. It’s a bit rat-like, I’ll grant. But, you know what else is furless, fleshy, and off-putting? Most humans. Perhaps, it’s the familiarity that breeds our contempt?
However, that’s all a matter of taste. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That’s why I’m going to list seven things about opossums that make them better than beautiful. You know what’s beautiful? Swans are beautiful. They’re also terrible, people. Here’s why I’d take opossums over beautiful animals.
They Eat Ticks and Save Lives
I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but in New England during the summer, everything is a tick. Underbrush? Ticks. Trees? Also ticks. The dirt itself? Look closely—it is not dirt, but rather completely ticks.
Were it not for the humble opossum, the very air itself would be naught but densely packed ticks, and we’d all be crushed by the immense weight of the 100-percent tick atmosphere. And, I’m just talking about the bigger less harmful ticks that you can easily see with your naked eye. The tiny ones—the deer ticks—are the “Lymey” vermin that present the greatest disease threat to people and pets.
While most animals can carry ticks, opossums are the only creatures in this part of the world with the flexibility and wherewithal to eat 90 percent of the ticks off of their own bodies. Opossums also muck around, dragging their low-suspension bodies through the underbrush where ticks congregate. It is there that the hunter becomes the hunted.
In fact, a single opossum might eat up to 5,000 ticks per tick season. Even a well-armed human with the requisite tick-hunting license couldn’t bag that many in one season.
Honestly, this ought to be enough to convince you to love the opossum, if you didn’t already. The next six things are for those of you without hearts or an eye for practicality.
Opossums Are the Only Marsupial North of Mexico
If you’re reading this in the lower 48, that means this is the only marsupial you’ll get, so you’d better appreciate it.
And, for those of you who look at an opossum and go “Ew, a rat!” No, they’re not like rats—they’re in the same infraclass as kangaroos! Who doesn’t like a good kangaroo?
All right, I’ll give you that they look more like rats than kangaroos at first glance. But, they’ve got prehensile fifth-appendage tails, pouches for carrying their young, and they even have an opposable toe on each (hind) foot.
They’re also endemic to the Americas (originally South America), which means they’re the best American marsupial that we’ll get. The Virginia opossum found across much of the United States is just one of 103 or more species under the Didelphimorphia order of marsupials.
They’re Immune to Most Snake Venom
If you’re still not convinced that opossums are great, then you’re very picky, but all right, how about this? Opossums are immune to most snake venom.
How’s that? Well, you see, opossums are so beautiful on the inside that they’re got a serum protein in their blood that neutralizes most snake venoms. The only thing that makes this less impressive is the fact that squirrels (and, famously, honey badgers) also have this resistance. I like those animals, too, but this article isn’t about them.
Did you know that venomous snakes kill 94,000 people around the world each year? Do you know how many opossums those snakes kill? Well, I don’t have the figure, but I’d wager substantially fewer. Still, there’s loads of venoms and toxins out there (it’s a big, beautiful planet), so opossum blood protein may not stop them all.
Wait, They’re Immune to Rabies, Too?!
I sh*t you not. Well, I sh*t you a little bit. They are not immune to rabies, per se, but it’s close. The rabies virus (which, side note, features a fear of water as a possible symptom), likes things a certain temperature—a certain normal mammal temperature. Opossums, being marsupials, are weird, and thus, have a lower body temperature than the placental mammals dominating North America.
So, opossums run a bit too chilly to make a good home for the rabies virus. As such, it’s extremely uncommon to come across a rabid opossum (though there have been a few documented cases).
I mean, don’t go sticking your hand in their mouths or anything. However, if someone puts a gun to your head and forces you to stick your hand inside an animal’s mouth of your choosing, you could pick worse than an opossum (rabies-wise, anyway).
Opossums Are Actually Social Animals
Unlike humans, opossums seem to actually enjoy each other’s company, sometimes. Of course, they interact with one another for mating and caring for offspring but, otherwise, opossums were assumed to be too tightly wound to chill. Trust me, I’ve tried.
Prior to 2015, Big Science had little more than anecdotal evidence that opossums might, in fact, chill, and not just for making joeys (baby opossums share a nickname with baby kangaroos). Some subspecies have been observed nest sharing between males and females, outside of mating, as well as cohabitation among recently weaned joey siblings.
The surprise there was that these opossums could live without agonist interactions in a communal den atmosphere. This is perhaps projection—as humans, we simply could not comprehend non-agnostic socialization and cohabitation. We naively assumed that an animal whose greatest natural defense is its stinkface would share other human proclivities, as well. Well, it looks like we might’ve been wrong.
They Have Great Memories
Not only do opossums give us great memories of all the time we’ve spent together, listening to them hiss at us—they also have pretty great memories.
Not of us, though. As far as I’ve observed, humans are among the most stressful animals to be around, according to wild animals and also lots of people. Given a wild opossum’s general temperament regarding threats (“GET BACK OR I’LL PASS OUT”), they probably prefer to forget our encounters.
Anyway, why should opossums bother to remember people when they could instead remember food—bugs, rodents, birds, animals that are already dead, bones (opossums need loads of calcium), and the sweetest ambrosia there is—human refuse. Specifically, they remember where they found these things, as well as, presumably, things like tannins and mouthfeel.
Fake Death Is Not Optional
Much the same as an indebted farmer with an underwater mortgage and a gambling problem, opossums are pretty much forced to fake their own deaths to get out of trouble. That is to say, it’s not an elective process.
Here’s how it works. Something scares the opossum into an existential fear, stress levels rise, and the opossum goes comatose—a state that can last for hours. And, likely because lots of predators use their noses, rather than checking for a pulse, the opossum also emits a corpse smell when it’s scared. Basically, the opossum simulates being a corpse that’s past its eat-by date, even for dogs. That’s impressive when you consider that dogs enjoy eating other animals’ feces (especially old dogs—am I right?).
Assuming the predator didn’t just hold its nose and wolf down the comatose opossum, the marsupial wakes up a few hours later and can them groom itself—something opossums do constantly, resulting in an animal that is totally devoid of body odor (when it’s not making itself smell like a dead body).