For the animal kingdom, communication is vital to surviving. Animals do not have a complex vocal communication repertoire as humans do, so they must find other ways to interact with one another. Opossums use a small number of body signals. However, the majority of their communication is through vocalizations.
The North American opossum makes a hissing sound or a low growl when threatened or angry and a clicking sound to attract attention from their young. Young opossums often making a sneezing sound. Opossums are usually silent so if you hear them in your house then there is usually more than one.
Some animals use chemicals signals called pheromones, and others use body language, much like dogs and cats. Let’s look at how opossums communicate.
What Are Opossums?
The opossum is the common name given to a group of marsupial mammals found across North and South America. There are currently 60 known species of opossum. They are often called possum instead of opossum, but possum refers to a different group of animals.
Opossums are nocturnal animals, so they are most active at night. They typically spend the daytime resting in tree hollows away from human-populated areas. During the night, they often venture into villages and towns to scavenge through rubbish for leftover food.
Unfortunately, opossums will ‘play’ dead as a defense against predators, leading people to believe they are dead. Many opossums that were alive and healthy have been buried in people’s yards as the person has assumed they are dead.
Opossums are noisiest during the breeding season, and if you live near an area where opossums are common, you will know when the breeding season has arrived!
When opossums are searching for a mate, they make loud clicking noises that sound just like us humans when we tut (clicking the tongue against the roof of the mouth). Both males and females follow the sounds of other opossum clicks to find a mate.
Opossums can reproduce twice per year, but most females only give birth to one litter per year. Since opossums are solitary, the male has no input in the rearing of the young.
A female can give birth to as many as 20 joeys, but the average is between 4 and 10. Just like with kangaroos, opossum joeys are tiny at birth, around the size of a bean. They are born after a gestation of around 11-14 days and travel from the birth canal, up the fur covering the mother’s stomach, and into the pouch.
Here, they latch on to a teat and continue to grow. After a month or so, the joeys are big enough to come out of the pouch, and the mother will carry her babies on her back.
When opossum feels threatened or agitated, they have two distinct vocalizations. The first is a loud growl that sounds similar to a pig snort. This is used as the initial communication to warn the other animal off. This might be a predator such as a fox or another opossum.
If this does not work, opossums will hiss or even screech. This is an ear-piercing sound and is often heard during the breeding season when two males come across one another, or a male tries to mate with a female who is already pregnant.
It is common to hear these noises at night, especially in populated areas that are close to the woodland where opossums live.
What Sounds Do Baby Opossums Make?
With so many babies to look after, mothers sometimes get separated from their joeys. One or two may fall of her back or be unable to keep up with her during nighttime foraging.
Joeys call to their mothers using a ‘choo’ sounds that sounds a lot like a sneeze. As opossums are able to mate twice per year, hearing opossum joeys is common to pretty much yearlong. While most females will only mate once per year, many do find a mate to breed twice per year, so they will raise two litters within 12 months.
Joeys may hiss at their siblings when fighting over the best spot on their mother’s back, but they are quiet compared to adult opossums.
Opossums vs. Possum
There is often fierce debate over the proper name for these quirky critters. The true answer is that they are not the same, but two distinct species. Opossums are native to North and South America. In fact, they are the only native marsupial on the continent of the Americas. Possums are endemic to Australia, meaning this is the only place they are found.
Opossums have a face and body similar to a ferret. They have a broad head, large ears, and a long snout that narrows toward the nose. Opossums have whiskers all over their face, including along the snout, on the cheeks, and above the eyes.
Their body is long and slender, with short legs compared to their body size and a long rat-like tail. The Colouring of their coarse fur ranges from pure white through pale grey, slate grey, and black. They generally have white faces and white fur on their stomach.
Australian possums, on the other hand, have more rounded faces, shorter snouts, fewer whiskers, and ears more like a rabbit. Possums have a much large size. Some species of possum can be as small as three or more inches, while others can be larger than a house cat.
They are greyish brown with cream-yellow fur on the lower portions of the face and down the chest, stomach, and back of the legs. There are some possums that can have a silver-grey coat like a chinchilla or degu, and black fur is also possible. Possums also have bushy tails, unlike the hairless tails of American opossums.
Both species are nocturnal (active at night), omnivorous (eating both meat and vegetation), and are marsupials (carrying young in a stomach pouch). They both inhabit similar environments, preferring woodland with nearby water sources. However, they are adaptive animals and are commonly seen scavenging through human bins or feeding off roadkill.