I see opossums around my house almost every day and I often see the same ones. Unfortunately though, after about a year I no longer see them, and it’s because they don’t live very long lives.
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 summer.
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 the size of a large cat, with an adult weighing 4-6 kgs (8.8-13.2 lbs) and about 76 cm (2.5 feet)) in length. Size and color variation may depend on the habitat they are living.
Opossums are primarily nocturnal and they are omnivorous. 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 although they 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. 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 manage to get to the marsupials pouch.
Once in the pouch, the young must attach to a nipple, or they do not survive. Females reach maturity at six months, and males at eight months.
In captive settings, opossums have been known to live significantly longer lives than their wild counterparts. The longest recorded lifespan for an opossum in captivity reached an impressive four years and five months. This extended lifespan in captivity can be attributed to various factors that contribute to a more controlled and sheltered environment compared to the challenges and hazards present in the wild.
Why is an Opossums Lifespan So Short?
An organism’s Darwinian fitness is calculated as the number of offspring it births that survive to reproduce.
Opossums are considered an R-selected species. R stands for reproduction, and R-selected species 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 this is why opossums often don’t reach adulthood.
Opossums 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.
Opossums finish breeding after two years. 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 deaths for many.
Do Opossums Die Easily?
Opossums are prey to many predators, including dogs, coyotes, birds of prey, and 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 areas do not have fur.
The most significant risk to opossums is humans. Opossums eat carrion 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 play dead when startled, or injured, and 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 trash cans while playing dead.
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 and giving the opossum a second chance to escape. 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.
To see if they are alive, it is best to look closely. Their eyes may still be slightly open, their ears may twitch at sudden sounds, and may have shallow breathing and heartbeat.
As it may take several hours for an opossum to regain consciousness, attempting to wait it out may not be the most efficient technique.
Knowing 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, leaving them where they are.
What Predators Do Opossums Have?
Opossums, as relatively small and nocturnal creatures, have a number of natural predators that pose threats to them in the wild. Here are some of the main predators of opossums:
Carnivores: Larger carnivores such as coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and domestic dogs are known to prey on opossums. These predators are opportunistic and may target opossums when they come across them.
Birds of Prey: Raptors like owls and hawks are skilled hunters that can spot opossums from above and swoop down to catch them. Opossums, especially young or injured individuals, are vulnerable to predation by birds of prey.
Snakes: Certain snake species, particularly those that are constrictors or large enough to overpower opossums, can pose a threat. Snakes such as pythons and some larger native species may feed on opossums.
Bobcats: Bobcats are skilled predators that can catch and kill opossums. They are agile climbers and can hunt opossums in trees or on the ground.
Coyotes: Coyotes are opportunistic omnivores that will eat a variety of prey, including opossums. They can be a threat to opossums, especially if they encounter them while foraging.
Domestic Pets: Unsupervised domestic cats and dogs can pose a threat to opossums. While not all pets will actively hunt opossums, some may see them as potential prey.
Humans: While humans are not natural predators of opossums, they can indirectly contribute to their mortality through activities such as vehicle collisions and habitat destruction.
References and Further Reading
“Opossums: Nightwalkers of the Americas” by Michael L. Kennedy This book provides an in-depth look at opossums, covering their biology, behavior, and ecological roles. It explores their natural history and interactions with their environments.
“The Opossum: Its Amazing Story” by William J. Krause This book delves into the world of opossums, exploring their evolutionary history, unique characteristics, and contributions to ecosystems. It also addresses misconceptions about these creatures.
“The Virginia Opossum: History, Behavior, and Management” by Elizabeth S. Lendrum and Joann F. Battaglia Focusing on the Virginia opossum species, this book covers its biology, behavior, and management strategies. It provides insights into the natural history of this North American marsupial.
“The Natural History of Opossums” by Michael A. Mares This book offers a comprehensive overview of opossums’ natural history, including their physical characteristics, behavior, reproduction, and adaptations. It also explores their interactions with humans.
“Secrets of the Opossum” by David C. Rowe This book dives into the lesser-known aspects of opossums’ lives, including their physiology, reproduction, and place in the animal kingdom. It discusses their remarkable adaptations and survival strategies.
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
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.