Why Do Opossums Die so Fast?


I was shocked recently when I found out the lifespan of opossums and wanted to share the information I found with you.

Opossums have many predators, suffer from many diseases, and can suffer premature death by well-meaning people.

For more information on the lifespan of opossums, please read on.

If you or someone you know loves opossums then you may like some of my favorite gifts that you can get on Amazon.

What Is An Opposum?

Opossums are the largest order of marsupials in the entire northern hemisphere and consist of around one hundred and three different species.

A Common opossum perched in a tree.

However, the only species currently within North America and Canada is the Virginia opossum, sometimes also called the common opossum.

Explorer John Smith gave the opossum its name from the Algonquian word apassum, which means white beast.

The opossum is usually about the size of a large cat, with an adult weighing in around 4-6 kegs (8.8-13.2 lbs) and are usually around 2.5 feet (76 centimeters) in length from nose to tail. Size and also color variation between opossums may depend on the habitat they are residing in.

Opossums are primarily nocturnal and are omnivorous, opportunistic hunters and foragers.

Opossums have adapted well to a changing landscape and become more resourceful with their food sources, eating anything from fruit and grass to small birds and lizards. They are often discovered after 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 a large variant of biomes, but prefer those with a damper quality and vegetative cover.

What is Playing Possum?

The popular term playing possum is a well-known colloquialism for a bluff and originated from the unique but not exclusive, behavior adapted by the opossum in times of stress.

When an opossum feels threatened their immediate and completely involuntary reaction is not to run or fight, but to roll over and play dead.

Live Opossum Playing Dead lying on the ground.

This response is called feigning death or apparent death. In addition to rolling over with their eyes rolling and their tongue hanging out, they also release a foul smell from their anal glands, in imitation of decay and disease.

This key behavior has been remarkably effective in throwing a predator off guard and providing the opossum with a second chance for escape by giving the impression of an unpalatable, rotten corpse. This intriguing state of catatonia can last from a few minutes up to four hours.

For more information on why opossums play dead, I have written an article which you can find here.

What Is The Average Lifespan of an Opossum?

The average lifespan for the Virginia opossum is between two and four years.

In captivity, the oldest recorded opossum was four years and five months old. However, opossums in the wild have a much lower life expectancy and do not commonly make it past their first year of life.

The oldest opossum ever 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 joeys must attach to a nipple, or they do not survive. Only around half of the opossums which make it out of the pouch reach maturity at around six months for females and eight months for males.

Why is an Opossums Lifespan So Short? 

The opossum’s conservation status is classified as stable, but they are often subjected to unnecessary mortality.

Opossums are considered as an r selected species. R selected species, in general, are very robust and adaptable in relation to K-selected species.

They generally have larger litters to increase the chances of survival and invest little resources into parenting. This almost guarantees that an opossum will pass on its genetic material in a short time at a low cost.

Once an opossum has spent their effective breeding lifespan at around two years of age, their bodies are effectively seen as having done their job.

In addition to the natural biology of their bodies, opossums tend to be highly parasite laden and prone to a myriad of diseases. However, surprisingly, rabies is very uncommon among the opossum population.

A baby Opossum feigning death in the garden.

Do Opossums Die Easily? 

Opossums are also prey to a myriad of other predators, including dogs, coyotes, birds of prey, and large snakes. However, they are immune to viper venom as well as several diseases, including Lyme disease.

Occasionally, juvenile opossums will fall prey to their adult counterparts. It is fairly common to see opossum mortality caused by starvation and exposure to the elements, particularly the cold. Opossums are often seen with the tips of their ears and tail missing due to frostbite.

The greatest 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. Also, opossums that may have been startled or injured and have entered the catatonic state may be perceived as mortally injured.

This can lead well, meaning humans feel compelled to put them out of their misery unnecessarily. Opossums have even been buried alive or thrown in rubbish bins, having been thought deceased.

Young Opossum “Playing Possum”

Humans have also been known to exploit the opossum population throughout North America, as they have done with many species of animals.

At one point in time, the fur and meat of opossums were highly regarded, and night hunting was a popular sport. This is no longer common practice as the fur and meat have lost value.

How do you Know If An Opossum Is Dead Or Just Playing Dead?

An opossum playing dead can be very convincing, and therefore very effective in evading predators. However, there is no change in heart rate or brain waves when an opossum is playing possum.

Their eyes may still be slightly open, and their ears may twitch at sudden sounds, in addition to the presence of 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 possum or not can be a very difficult task. It is recommended to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are just playing dead.

Additionally, 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 does appear to be dead.

If you want to know more on whether opossums are dangerous to humans, you can find out in an article which I have written here.

Conclusion

The opossum is the most widespread marsupial within the northern hemisphere. However, North America is home to only the Virginia opossum.

The Virginia opossum can grow as big as a large cat, and when reproducing can give birth to as many as 25 joeys. Unfortunately, many of these do not survive to maturity, and for those that do, their lifespan in the wild is an average of about 2-3 years due to them being an r-selected species.

Opossums have many predators including dogs and large snakes, birds of prey and humans. The opossum trade was popular many years ago with both the skin and meat considered of high value, but this is no longer the case.

Opossums have been tagged with the unique ability to play dead when they feel threatened by a potential predator. This tactic has proven to be quite successful as predators see and smell the signs of death and decay.

This strategy is so successful that opossums feigning death have been disposed of by well-meaning humans in the belief that the animal is truly dead.

There are very few signs of life in an opossum playing possum. There may be a slight twitch of an ear, but there will be very shallow breathing. However, it is recommended to leave a possibly dead opossum alone, for both yours and their safety.

If you or someone you know loves opossums then you may like some of my favorite gifts that you can get on Amazon.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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