The Awesome Opossum
What’s the difference between a possum and an opossum? In the United States, the two words are used interchangeably to refer to the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), even though, technically speaking, a possum is an Australian marsupial of no close relation. Whatever you prefer, this is is a fascinating creature that often carries an undeserved bad reputation.
I grew up in rural Michigan where we called them ‘possums, and if you said “opossum”, people would look at you weird. Often, you’d see them crossing the road at night, and during the day you could see even more as road kill.
Photographing an opossum in Colorado turned out to be more of a challenge than you might expect. The species is mostly found in the far eastern parts of the state along the Platte, Arikaree, and Republican Rivers in agricultural and riparian areas. There may also be a small introduced population in Grand Junction. Here in Boulder County, there is just one record – a suspected captive escapee that was found in Green Mountain Cemetery in 1919.
My first attempt to photograph opossums was a total disaster. My wife and I drove down to the Republican River near Hale with spotlights and the “frankenflash” (a hacked together combination of spotlight and strobe that I tried to use to photograph nocturnal animals before I wised up and started using camera traps). Not only did we fail to see a single opossum, but we both wound up with miserable cases of poison ivy from stumbling around in the dark.
I knew there were opossums around Julesburg, because I had seen them dead on the road just over the Nebraska border, but finding places to camera trap in the area was a roadblock. Finally, I stumbled upon nature photographer Mack Hitch of Sterling, who helped me with access to a site that was a bit closer to home.
It took me about five site visits to get the shot below. That’s roughly 1,300 miles of driving, and roughly 40 hours of effort spread out across two months. Not too bad compared to my search for hog-nosed skunks, but probably a laughable amount to folks who live in places where opossums are plentiful.
Not only are they so ugly it makes them kind of cute, there are some reasons to appreciate the opossum. First, opossums are the only native marsupial to the USA, which is kind of cool. Like their more glamorous relatives down under, they do have a pouch and their babies are called joeys. The joeys will hang out in their mother’s pouch for about 10 weeks before they grow large enough to climb onto their mothers back to hitch a ride.
Second, they eat ticks by the thousands. There aren’t many things in nature that I can’t find some way to appreciate, but ticks are an exception. Opossums are also resistant to pit viper venom which gives them the mutant power to fearlessly take on rattlesnakes.
Finally, just like a world cup soccer player, they have the not-so-super power of “playing possum” (aka dead) in the face of danger. This might work to deter a predator who would rather have a fresh meal, but is a quick way to become roadkill in our modern world. Combined with their average life span of under two years, opossums have a pretty rough gig.
This species is a milestone in my Colorado mammals project. It is actually the last species for me to photograph that is currently known to inhabit the State of Colorado, and not part of the mythical “X-Files” group (extirpated from Colorado, or potentially expanding their range into the state from elsewhere). Everything from here on out is a mystery waiting to be solved. In case you were wondering, those X-File species include grizzly bear, gray wolf, nine-banded armadillo, eastern spotted skunk, and of course, the wolverine!