Nature Nut: These opossums aren't playing dead

The ink wasn't even dry on last week's column about skunks when I noticed that opossum roadkill numbers seemed to be eclipsing those of skunks. With both these species not regularly seen alive by people, the numbers of dead ones found on and along roads might be the best survey method available.

It was roadkill like the skunks and opossum — as well as frogs, snakes and other critters — that prompted a prof I had at Luther to write a book title "Flattened Fauna." For those who don't know, fauna is another name for animals; don't feel bad as I am not sure I did when Roger Knutson's book was released in 1987.

Not only did Dr. Knutson survey roadkills he observed, he also collected samples and filed them in manila file folders. Since most were quite flattened already, they fit OK in his office file cabinet. Fortunately, most were also dry and had lost their fragrance.

While I have had more than a few encounters with opossums, two stick out in my mind. The first, which is quite common, was to find an opossum in our garage helping itself to dog food. In trying to get it out of the garage I only cornered it in the back end where I found out how feisty they are. With more teeth than any other Minnesota mammal, including two sharp canines, I also remember its open mouth looked quite ferocious.

The second encounter was another learning experience when I came upon a fresh roadkill opossum. Stopping to take a closer look to show our children North America's only marsupial, I was surprised to see numerous naked baby opossum crawling on the hot blacktop pavement.


We later looked in our ancient encyclopedia to learn that honeybee-sized opossum are born after less than two weeks of gestation. They come out for the race of their life, clawing their way to their mother's pouch where warm milk awaits them. Even with temporary special claws to help them climb the hairy belly, some do not complete this arduous journey, or are killed when their mother is slowly crossing a road.

Many people probably have "possum" stories of their own as they seem to have become more and more comfortable around humans. Their expansion from warmer climates in Central and South America has been taking place for hundreds of years, but only in the last few decades have we seen them in the north country we call home.

They seem to adapt well to being around people, with one New England resident documenting three generations of them growing up under his home's crawlspace.

I can't help but believe that this expansion of their range is still an experiment in the making. Most opossums around here end up with frostbitten ears, noses and tails and don't tend to live very long. Being so slow, migration is out of the question, and they haven't figured out how to hibernate, so they must be active and feed all winter long.

But, don't bet against opossum survival, as their kind once roamed the Earth with T-Rex.

Greg Munson is a volunteer naturalist and freelance writer. If you have questions, comments or column ideas, contact Munson at

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