Though opossums can live up to four years in captivity, in the wild, they usually only live a year or less. I’ll explore biological factors to habitat conditions that make it difficult for these creatures to survive and examine how humans complicate their lives even more.
Opossums have a lifespan of about one year in the wild. They are prey to many predators, suffer diseases, and are often disposed of by humans while playing dead. Winter is a difficult time for opossums as their fur does not provide enough insulation, and many don’t make it to the following year.
In this article, I’ll provide insight into why opossums die so fast and why they’re essential for the environment and ecology around us.
What Are Opposums?
Opossums are the most significant order of marsupials in the northern hemisphere and consist of over one hundred species. The only species in North America and Canada is the Virginia opossum, sometimes called the common opossum.
Explorer John Smith gave the opossum its name from the Algonquian word apassum, meaning white beast.
The opossum grows to about the size of a large cat, with an adult weighing around 4-6 kgs (8.8-13.2 lbs) and usually about 76 cm (2.5 feet76 centimeters) in length. Size and color variation may depend on the habitat they are living.
Opossums are primarily nocturnal and are omnivorous, opportunistic hunters and foragers. Opossums have adapted well and become more resourceful with their food sources, eating anything from fruit and grass to small birds and lizards. They are often discovered when raiding human garbage bins.
Opossums have been referred to as living fossils, with remnants found preserved from the Interglacial Pleistocene era, 40,000 to 100,000 years ago, and are so well adapted that they can integrate themselves into many biomes but prefer wet areas with vegetative cover.
What Is The Average Lifespan of an Opossum?
The average lifespan for the Virginia opossum is between two and four years. However, this is often much shorter.
In captivity, the oldest recorded opossum was four years and five months old. However, in the wild, opossums have a much lower life expectancy and do not commonly make it past their first year.
The oldest opossum captured in the wild was only three years old. A female may give birth to up to 25 young in one litter, although often only around half of the joeys successfully make the journey into the pouch after birth.
Once in the pouch, the young must attach to a nipple, or they do not survive. Only around half of the opossums make it out of the bag. Females reach maturity at six months, and males at eight months.
Why is an Opossums Lifespan So Short?
The opossum’s conservation status is classified as stable, but they are often subjected to unnecessary mortality.
An organism’s Darwinian fitness is calculated as the number of offspring it leaves behind that survive to reproduce.
Opossums are considered an R-selected species. R stands for reproduction, and species such as opossums put only a small investment of resources into each offspring, producing lots of babies that don’t need much time and effort. R-selected species do generally not spend much time protecting or rearing their young, and opossums often don’t reach adulthood.
Opossums generally have larger litters to increase the chances of survival while investing few resources into parenting. This almost guarantees that an opossum will quickly pass on its genetic material at a low cost.
Once an opossum has spent their effective breeding lifespan of around two years, its body is effectively seen as finished.
In addition to their bodies’ natural biology, opossums are prone to parasites and disease, including leptospirosis, tuberculosis, relapsing fever, tularemia, spotted fever, toxoplasmosis, coccidiosis, and Chagas disease leading to early death.
Do Opossums Die Easily?
Opossums are prey to many predators, including dogs, coyotes, birds of prey, and giant snakes. However, they are immune to viper venom and several diseases, including Lyme disease.
It is common to see death caused by starvation and exposure to the elements, particularly in winter. Opossums are often seen with the tips of their ears and tails missing due to frostbite, as these do not have fur.
The most significant risk to the life of an opossum is humans. Opossums are carrion eaters, and often this includes roadkill. As opossums are nocturnal, they are regularly seen searching for food at night and on roads and are often injured or killed by vehicles.
Opossums that may have been startled, injured, or entered a catatonic state may be perceived as mortally harmed.
This can make well-meaning humans feel compelled to put them out of their misery unnecessarily. Opossums have even been buried alive or thrown in rubbish bins, as they were thought dead.
What Predators Do Opossums Have?
In summer, opossums are preyed upon by hawks, bobcats, cougars, and other larger mammals. Coyotes can also pose a risk during the summer in more temperate parts of the opossum range, such as the south.
However, opossums face their most significant hazards in winter when wild turkeys, dogs, and even bears can take advantage of opossum vulnerability due to a decreased food supply and reduced mobility due to frigid temperatures.
Ultimately, opossums have a wide array of predators, which they must contend with during winter and summer.
Why Do Opossums Play Dead?
The popular term playing possum is a well-known colloquialism for a bluff and originated from the unique behavior adopted by the opossum in times of stress.
When an opossum feels threatened, its immediate and involuntary reaction is not to run or fight but to roll over and play dead.
This response is called feigning death or apparent death. In addition to rolling over with their eyes rolling and tongues hanging out, they also release a foul smell from their anal glands to imitate decay and disease.
This critical behavior has been remarkably effective in throwing a predator off guard and giving the opossum a second chance for escape by giving the impression of an unpalatable, rotten corpse. This state of catatonia can last from a few minutes to four hours.
How To Tell If An Opossum Is Dead Or Just Playing Dead?
An opossum playing dead can be very convincing and effective in evading predators. However, there is no change in heart rate or brain waves when an opossum is playing dead.
It would be best to look closely at an opossum when they are in this state. Their eyes may still be slightly open, their ears may twitch at sudden sounds, and they may notice shallow breathing and a heartbeat.
Unfortunately, as it may take several hours for an opossum to regain consciousness, attempting to wait it out may not be the most efficient technique.
Telling if an opossum is playing dead or not can be a difficult task. It is recommended to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are just playing dead.
Approaching an animal that appears to be infected with rabies, common in opossums due to the open foaming mouth, is, in general, not a very good idea, even if it appears dead.
References and Further Reading
WDFW – Living with opossums
NYTimes – A Fast Life and Success That Starts in the Pouch
Sciencedirect – Miscellaneous small mammal behavior
Cary Institute – Opossums: Where Lyme disease goes to die