U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Scientific Name: Didelphis virginiana
Classification: Game species and furbearer
Abundance: Common throughout state
Species Profile (PDF)
Virginia opossum with young (Wikimedia)
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.
Due to opossum's unusual appearance, they are often misunderstood and maligned by people who don’t realize the many benefits they provide. Somewhat like nature’s vacuum cleaners, opossums can eat thousands of ticks in a week and will also feast on cockroaches, snails, slugs, snakes, mice and rats. Opossums are highly resistant to contracting rabies. The most common experience people have with this secretive species in North Carolina is on roadways at night, and many are hit by vehicles every year.
Opossums and Chicken Coops
Opossums occasionally break into chicken houses to eat eggs or young chicks, and on occasion will kill adult chickens while they’re roosting. Maintaining a predator-proof coop and run will protect chickens from a variety of predators. Keep chicken feed in hard plastic or metal containers with tight-fitting lids to keep out opossums, rats, and other wildlife that can harm chickens or their eggs. Setting traps for wildlife out of season requires a free depredation permit from the Commission. Learn more about wildlife trapping seasons and regulations here.
Opossum in the Garbage?
Opossums readily scavenge for food scraps in the garbage when it’s available to them. Keep garbage in sturdy containers with tight-fitting lids to keep wildlife out – this includes keeping dumpster lids/sliding doors closed when not in use. You can secure city trash can lids with bungee cords to keep wild animals from getting inside. If an opossum or raccoon has been getting into the trash on a regular basis, preventing access to the food source will entice the animal to move on in a few days.
Found an injured or orphaned opossum?
Young opossums live in a pouch on their mother’s belly until they’re too large to fit inside, after which point they will cling to her back. By the time their body is about 7 inches long, not including the tail (about the length of an adult human’s hand), young opossums are weaned and able to survive on their own. If you find live young in a dead female opossum's pouch, lone young smaller than 7 inches, or any opossum that is obviously injured, contact a licensed small mammal rehabilitator for help.
Is it sick?
Opossums are highly resistant to rabies, but even healthy ones can appear sick to people who are unfamiliar with their normal behavior. Opossums walk with a waddling gait that looks unsteady under the best of circumstances, and when stressed or cornered, they will usually begin to hiss and drool as a threat display. Opossums will go so far as to “play dead” to make a potential predator think they’re sick or diseased. Though usually nocturnal, seeing an opossum during the day is not a cause for concern. If you see an opossum out in the open for a long period of time, or walking in tight circles, it may be hurt or sick. In these cases you should contact a licensed small mammal rehabilitator for advice.
The NCWRC tracks harvest of the Virginia opossum through the annual trapper harvest survey and fur buyer reports of annual pelt purchases.
Virginia Opossum species profile (PDF)