Your dog is barking like crazy and you hear something shuffling out there in the dark, but you’re not sure what it might be. Grabbing a flash light, you shine the back yard to discover a thick naked tail reminiscent of a huge rat. Moving your light up the rounded body you discover the pointy nose and grinning lips of the Virginia Opossum.
Found throughout the eastern United States with the exception of the most northern areas, this mammalian wonder leads a solitary, nocturnal life hidden from most prying eyes. Think about the last time you saw a possum. It was probably on the side of a roadway.
With a diet comprised of mostly carrion, or dead animals, road kill is a possum’s bread and butter. Along with these vehicle-tenderized morsels they will eat insects, frogs, fruits, berries and snakes. Growing to about 15 pounds, they are about the size of your average house cat.
Interestingly, they also enjoy consuming unattended pet food on porches or patios and will also sniff around fruit trees and bird feeders. Attracted to almost any meal, their opposable thumbs and prehensile tails make them skilled climbers. They can easily scale any fencing or trees and can also navigate their way into trash receptacles or cans, so be sure to look before reaching in.
Their silvery hair gives them an elderly appearance along with a queer grin displaying a mouthful of sharp, menacing fangs. Boasting the most teeth of any mammal in the same region, their toothsome grin is impressive. While they may appear a bit scary, their laid-back demeanor is evident in their desire to move along if discovered. If blocked or prevented from escape, they may bluff with hissing and posturing to protect themselves. If this doesn’t work, their penchant for playing possum, or appearing dead, helps them avoid predation or harassment from larger predators, humans or our pets.
As Florida’s only marsupial, their young are born after just two weeks of gestation. Bean-sized babies must emerge and crawl up into the mama’s pouch. Those that don’t make the trek through her thick fur do not survive. If they find the pouch and attached to a nipple, they will remain so for about two months. Young will then hitch a ride intermittently on moms back as she lumbers about searching for food. Around four months of age, they are weaned and begin to venture out on their own.
Living about seven years, their lumbering, drunken walk moves them about under the cover of darkness hidden from most of us. Consider yourself lucky if you happen to catch a glimpse of this remarkable mammal of Florida.