These little guys are probably one of the coolest animals in North America. Not only is the Virginia Opossum (North American Opposum) the only Marsupial found here, it has been historically named as our best line of defense against some of our nastiest, disease-spreading, blood-sucking pests in Ticks. But, are the claims of some 5,000 larval ticks consumed each week actually accurate? Let's dive into the exciting world of the opossum and explore one of nature's coolest and strangest creatures.

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This Guy Is Not Your Average 'Possum

First things first, let's clear up some confusion: opossums and possums aren't the same animals. While North Americans often shorten opossum to possum, in Australia, a possum is a completely different creature. The Australian brushtail possum, for example, looks like a cross between a squirrel and a chinchilla.

Credit: Canva An Australian Possum.
Credit: Canva
An Australian Possum.
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Meanwhile, our Virginia opossum is more rugged, rough, and tumble, and not at all agile-looking.

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Credit: Canva
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The Marsupial Marvel of America

Opossums are the only marsupials found north of Mexico. These fascinating creatures carry and nurse their young in pouches. After giving birth to tiny, underdeveloped joeys, mother opossums ensure their survival by providing them with a cozy pouch where they nurse and grow until they're ready to face the world. Once larger, they are often carried around by mother opossum on her back until they can make it on their own.

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Credit: Canva
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Strange And Intriguing Reproductive Systems

Speaking of reproduction, opossum mating involves some unique anatomy. Females have two vaginal tracts and uteri, while males have bifurcated genitalia. This complex anatomy puzzled early European settlers, leading to some bizarre theories about their reproduction, including mating by way of the female opossum's nostrils.

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Credit: Canva
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So, Is Our Opossum A Tick Terminator Or Not?

You've probably heard that opossums are great at controlling tick populations, with claims that they consume around 5,000 larval ticks per week. However, recent research suggests this might not be entirely accurate. Studies on wild opossums' stomach contents found no evidence of ticks. This raises questions about the assumption that they actively seek out and consume ticks in the wild.

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Credit: Canva
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Nonetheless, they do play a role in the ecosystem by grooming and possibly ingesting ticks that attempt to feed on them. Opossums are extremely good groomers, so any ticks that attach themselves are up for mealtime. They are said to groom so well in fact, that they manage to gobble up 90 to 95% of attached ticks.

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Credit: Canva
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Additionally, while the opossum can be a vector for several tick diseases, it is definitely beating the rabies rap sheet. That's right, opossums rarely get rabies. Their lower body temperature makes it difficult for the rabies virus to thrive. While they aren’t completely immune, finding a rabid opossum is extremely rare.

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Sharp Minds and Snake Meals

So if you hate ticks and snakes, this is your guy. They're immune to most snake venoms, including those of rattlesnakes. This allows them to feast on snakes without fear of deadly bites. And with 50 teeth, more than any other North American land mammal, it can make a meal out of the slithery serpents easily.

An opossum,commonly called possum, is displaying a fiercs snarl.
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Contrary to their reputation of being goofy-looking, clumsy, or dumb, opossums have surprisingly sharp memories, especially when it comes to food. Studies show they can remember which pathways led to tasty treats better than cats, dogs, and even rats.

Playing Dead: A Life-Saving Trick That's Involuntary

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One of the opossum’s most famous traits is its dramatic defense mechanism: "playing dead." When faced with extreme fear, an opossum will involuntarily flop over, stick out its tongue, and appear lifeless for hours. Actually, it's not really acting; it's an involuntary response to stress, sort of like fainting. Adding to the act, they emit a foul odor, discharge their bowels, and appear to stop breathing, making predators think twice about their next meal.

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Credit: Canva
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Just as cool, opossums are equipped with prehensile tails that act like a fifth limb, helping them climb and stabilize themselves. While baby opossums can hang from branches for short periods, they don’t sleep this way as often depicted in cartoons. Bonus, they have clawless opposable thumbs on their back feet

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Credit: Canva
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The Bottom Line On North America's Marsupial:

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Credit: Canva
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Opossums are fascinating, misunderstood creatures that play a unique and critical role in our ecosystem. From their impressive defensive mechanisms to their surprising intelligence and pest elimination, there's a lot more to these marsupials than meets the eye. So, the next time you see an opossum, try not to make them play dead or hit them with your car—they’re one of nature's coolest and strangest animals.

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