Opossum

Opossum

The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is Indiana’s only native marsupial, meaning a mammal that raises its young in a pouch. Opossums spend a lot of time grooming and tend to eat any ticks that jump on them, so they help reduce the amount of ticks in the environment. Though many people think they look odd, opossums can provide a lot of benefits and are a unique member of Indiana’s wildlife community.

Similar species

General characteristics

  • Adult opossums weigh about 7 pounds on average
  • They have a long, narrow and cone-shaped face.
  • Opossum ears are black, hairless, leathery and tipped in pink or white.
  • Their tails are hairless and scaly, and their feet are shaped like hands.
  • The inner toe of each hind foot is like a thumb and gives the opossum great grasping ability for climbing and grabbing food.
  • Their fur is a mix of hairs that are white with grayish tips and hairs that are dark gray or black, giving the opossum an overall grayish color.
  • The female opossum has a woolly pouch on her abdomen for carrying and nourishing her newborn young.
  • Opossums have 50 teeth, the most of any Indiana mammal.
  • The average life span of an opossum is only 1.5–2 years
  • Opossums are not territorial and are usually solitary

Reproduction

The breeding season for opossums begins in February. Young are born within two weeks after mating. Generally five to 13 young are born and crawl into the female’s pouch to develop. After the first month, the young begin to leave the pouch for short periods, and once weaned spend about three months with their mother. Sometimes young can be seen clinging to the mother's back or tail as she wanders in search of food. Litters are not produced at any particular time but are born over a relatively long period from early spring into summer. Females can produce two litters per year. The final litter of the season may be traveling with the female when the first litter of the next year is born.

Distribution and abundance

Opossums were once uncommon in northern portions of the United States. In the past half-century, opossums have extended their range and are now found in Canada. These animals occur in every Indiana county, but their numbers can be reduced in northern counties during severe winters. It is not uncommon to find individuals with tips of their ears and tails blunted from frostbite following a harsh winter.

Food habits

Opossums are omnivores and will eat nearly anything, including:

  • Carrion
  • Eggs
  • Insects, worms and other invertebrates
  • Fruits, nuts, seeds and plants
  • Frogs, salamanders, turtles and snakes
  • Small ground nesting birds
  • Small mammals

Management and control

Opossum

Opossums, because of their wide variety of eating habits, do not require special management techniques. There is a regulated hunting and trapping season for opossums. Dogs, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and owls will prey upon them. However, their slow travel pattern across highways probably spells doom to more opossums than any other cause.

Resident landowners and tenants can live-trap an opossum that is causing damage on their own property without a permit from the DNR. The opossum must be euthanized or released within the county of capture on private property for which you have permission to release the opossum. In order to prevent the spread of disease, the DNR encourages homeowners to safely and humanely euthanize caught opossums, if possible. If you do not want to trap the opossum yourself, contact a licensed nuisance wild animal control operator.

If you have an opossum hanging around you want to discourage, consider the following:

  • Turn on a radio to a talk station and leave it on overnight. This can be helpful if an opossum is living under your porch or hanging around on your deck.
  • Keep bird feeders and garbage cans in at night. Pick up any fallen fruit from fruit trees, bring in pet food, and make sure compost is inaccessible.
  • Trim overhanging tree limbs to prevent easy access to your roof and attic.
  • Block any access points into sheds, garages, basements or attics so the opossum can’t find a warm place to sleep. Also fencing the bottom of porches and decks can prevent opossums from making their home underneath them.