Davenport, L J
EARLY ONE SUNDAY MORNING-too early, in fact-I wakened to an ominous knock at the door. I opened it to find a tearful woman standing there clutching a wet and lumpy paper bag. She thrust it toward me, sobbing, “I ran over her and she still has babies!” (Ah, the joy of being the neighborhood biologist!) Sure enough, the bag contained the corpse of a freshly flattened female opossum-warm, bloody, and inert, except that her belly pouch wriggled oddly with life. I gingerly reached inside that pouch, wondering just what kind of disgusting mess I might find, then tugged at the offspring attached to her teats. One, two, three . . . and finally ten emerged-warm, soft, and miraculously unscathed.
And that’s how I learned, first-hand, about marsupial mommas and their mammae.
Such creatures are most associated with Australia, where kangaroos, koalas, and their cousins evolved in perfect isolation, radiating out from an original primordial marsupial into all possible niches, and assuming all possible roles-grazers, climbers, and even predators (like the Tasmanian Devil of cartoon fame). But ‘possums took a different path, arising in North America about seventy million years ago before “extincting,” then returning (via South and Central America) during Pleistocene times. These “living fossils” remain pretty much unchanged, among the Earth’s oldest surviving mammals.
Primitively clumsy and slow, with conical heads and pointed pink noses, sparse gray fur and naked ears, mature opossums reach the size of house cats (about ten pounds). Nocturnal and arboreal, they clamber up trees and hang from limbs thanks to long prehensile tails and opposable inside toes (like thumbs) on their hind feet. Truly omnivorous, they cat all that they find-birds and their eggs, worms and snakes, frogs and toads, insects, nuts and fruits (showing a particular penchant for persimmons), vegetables, garbage, cat food on my back porch-the ‘possum-bilities are endless. They even happily consume carrion, wandering onto busy highways to get it. (So in a perverse Cycle of Life, roadkill begets roadkill begets roadkill, ad infinitum.) Perhaps, instead, they should order carrion carryout. . . .
Non-motorized humans also obliterate opossums. Long considered as “varmints,” due to their depredations on hen houses and garden plots, ‘possums are hunted for both sport and food. (When cleaning the carcass, be sure to remove the rather pungent sacs on the small of the back and under the forelegs.) Baked ‘Possum With Red Peppers & Sweet Potatoes makes a particularly savory dish-or so I’ve been told.
The name “opossum” entered our language in 1608 thanks to Captain John Smith, who anglicized an Algonquian word (apasum) meaning “white animal.” So the initial “O,” which we frequently drop, is part of the o-riginal spelling, leading to o-ccasional jokes. (“What’s Irish and keeps her babies in a pouch? An O’Possum.”) And O’tongue-twisters. (“Obese opossums often ooze offensive odors.”) But the “O” blocks the alliterative perfection of PLAYING POSSUM! Early settlers marveled at the creature’s propensity, when cornered or caught, to suddenly go limp, fall down and roll over, with tongue hanging out, drooling profusely. ‘Possum pursuers quickly lose interest in an apparently dead animal (I mean, what’s the fun in that?) and leave it alone. This stress-induced catatonia, similar to fainting, lasts up to four hours, until the ‘possum senses its safety, blinks open an eye, smiles to itself, and ambles away.
‘Possum reproduction follows the marsupial party line. Males mature at eight months, and females even earlier. Once the two get together, gestation lasts less than fifteen days. The “embryos” emerge about the size of a navy bean, crawling blindly, hand-over-hand, from the womb to the pouch (marsupium), following a moist path licked in her fur by Mama. Thirteen nipples await-a circle of twelve with one in the middle-and the youngsters instinctively attach, swallowing the life-giving thread deep down their throats. There they remain, contentedly suckling, for two months, wriggling and crawling about as though attached to a tether, then cautiously letting go, peering out the pouch’s door as their mother wanders about the countryside. The final month of childhood is spent riding on the back of this maternal mobile home, clinging tightly with their tails.
And by the way: Those ten orphaned opossums, about six weeks old, were whisked to the wildlife rescue folks at Oak Mountain, who rounded up adoptive parents equipped for ’round-the-clock bottle feeding. And they made it just fine, released to the wild when ready. Hopefully, each lived a good, long life (three to five years); had many children (two to three litters per year); successfully avoided owls, bobcats, foxes, hungry humans, and unripe persimmons; and-most importantly-shied away from asphalt.
Larry Davenport is a professor of biology at Samford University, Birmingham.
Copyright University of Alabama Press Spring 2004
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