North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Virginia Opossum

Scientific Name: Didelphis virginiana
Classification: Game Species and Furbearer 
Abundance: Common throughout state

Species Profile (PDF)


U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
     

The Virginia opossum is a small mammal about the size of a house cat with a long, pointed nose, black hairless ears, dark eyes and a nearly hairless tail adapted to grasping objects (called “prehensile”). The opossum is adept at climbing, running and swimming at a relatively slow and deliberate pace. Each foot has five digits with all but the first digit on the hind foot having claws. The first digit of the hind foot is opposable and functions like the human thumb, enabling the opossum to grasp objects while climbing. Fur coloration ranges from light gray to nearly black, with most individuals exhibiting light underfur with black guard hairs. The Virginia opossum has a total of 50 teeth, more than any other North American mammal.

Opossums inhabit a wide range, from sea level to elevations over 10,000 feet. Although they prefer deciduous woodlands with streams, they use all habitats within their range. They are well-adapted to arboreal and terrestrial habitats, and are found in the highest densities where concentrated food sources occur.
Opossums are primarily nocturnal and generally spend the daylight hours in a den or abandoned squirrel nest. Although opossums do not hibernate, they may remain in a den during short periods of extremely cold weather.

Opossums are solitary, except during the mating season. Unlike other mammals, the gestation period is very short, resulting in embroyonic young that must pull themselves with their forelimbs to the marsupium, or pouch, where they must attach themselves to a nipple in order to survive. Though litter size ranges from one to 15 young, typically only 4 to 7 successfully reach the pouch. The young remain attached to a nipple inside the pouch and at about 55 days, they are about the size of a house mouse,can open their mouths and may crawl out of the pouch for short periods. Until they are about 85 days old, the young either travel with the mother in the pouch or on her back. When the young are approximately 100 days old, they are weaned and will leave the mother and litter mates and disperse on their own. When born, young opossums weigh 0.13 grams and increase a thousand times in 100 days to 130 grams.
     Most people are familiar with the phrase “playing possum” derived from the opossum’s habit of feigning death when approached by a potential predator. When threatened, an opossum will first face the predator with its mouth open and hiss or growl. If a predator grabs and shakes the opossum, the opossum will feign death while defecating and emitting a foul-smelling greenish substance from its anal glands. This behavior frequently causes the predator to release the opossum and leave it alone. Opossums are resistant to the venom of our more common venomous snakes and they can feed on copperheads, rattlesnakes and cottonmouth snakes with minimal risk of injury or death from the venom.

Learn more by reading the Virginia opossum species profile.

 

The Virgina opossum is a game species furbearer with seasons and limits.

Hunting Regulations

Trapping Regulations

 

Due to the opossum's unusual appearance, many people have misconceptions about opossums and don’t realize the many benefits opossums can provide to the ecosystem. Studies have shown they can eat 1,000s of ticks in a week and that they will also eat cockroaches, snails, slugs, snakes, rats and mice. Opossums will occasionally break into chicken houses to eat eggs or young chicks, and they often raid garbage cans if access is available. The most frequent interaction that people have with opossums in North Carolina is on the road, and more opossums are killed by vehicles than hunting and trapping.

 

Visit our "Have a Wildlife Problem-Tips for Coexisting with Wildlife" webpages for more information.

 

The NCWRC tracks harvest of the Virginia opossum through the annual trapper harvest survey and fur buyer reports of annual pelt purchases.

 

Trapper Harvest Survey Estimates