Didelphimorphia is the order of common opossums of the Western Hemisphere. Opossums probably diverged from the basic South American marsupials in the late Cretaceous or early Paleocene. A sister group is Paucituberculata (shrew opossums). They are commonly also called "possums," though that term is also applied to Australian fauna of the suborder Phalangeriformes. The Virginia Opossum is the original animal named "opossum". The word comes from Algonquian wapathemwa. Colloquially, the Virginia opossum is frequently called simply possum.
Didelphimorphs are small to medium-sized marsupials, about the size of a large house cat. They tend to be semi-arboreal omnivores, although there are many exceptions. Most members of this taxon have long snouts, a narrow braincase, and a prominent sagittal crest. The dental formula (one side of one jaw) includes five incisors (four on the lower jaw), one canine, three premolars and four tricuspid molars. By mammal standards, this is a very full jaw. The incisors are very small, the canines large.
Didelphimorphs have a plantigrade stance (feet flat on the ground) and the hind feet have an opposable digit with no claw. Like some primates, opossums have prehensile tails. The stomach is simple, with a small cecum. Opossum reproductive systems are extremely basic, with a reduced marsupium. This means that the young are born at a very early stage. The species are moderately sexually dimorphic with males usually being somewhat larger than females. The largest difference between the opossum and other sexually reproductive animals is the bifurcated penis of the male and bifurcated vagina of the female (the source of the Latin "didelphis," meaning double-wombed).
Didelphimorphs are opportunistic omnivores with a very broad range of diet. Their unspecialized biology, flexible diet and reproductive strategy make them successful colonizers and survivors in unsettled times. Originally native to the eastern United States, the Virginia Opossum was intentionally introduced into the west during the Great Depression, probably as a source of food. Its range has been expanding steadily northwards, thanks in part to more plentiful, man-made sources of fresh water, increased shelter due to urban encroachment, and milder winters. Its range has extended into Ontario, Canada, and it has been found farther north than Toronto.
Opossums are usually nomadic, staying in one area as long as food and water are easily available. Though they will temporarily occupy abandoned burrows, they do not dig or put much effort into building their own. They favor dark, secure areas, below ground or above.
When threatened or harmed, they will "play possum", mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. The lips are drawn back, teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands. The physiological response is involuntary, rather than a conscious act. Their stiff, curled form can be prodded, turned over, and even carried away. Many injured opossums have been killed by well-meaning people who find a catatonic animal and assume the worst. The best thing to do upon finding an injured or apparently dead opossum is to leave it in a quiet place with a clear exit path. In minutes or hours, the animal will regain consciousness and escape quietly on its own.
Adult opossums do not hang from trees by their tails, though babies may dangle temporarily. Their prehensile tails are not strong enough to support a mature adult's weight. Instead, the opossum uses its tail as a brace and a fifth limb when climbing. The tail is occasionally used as a grip to carry bunches of leaves or bedding materials to the nest. A mother will sometimes carry her young upon her back, where they will cling tightly even when she is climbing or running.
Threatened opossums (especially male) will growl deeply, raising the pitch as the threat becomes more urgent. Males make a clicking "smack" noise out of the side of their mouths as they wander in search of a mate, and females will sometimes repeat the sound in return. When separated or distressed, baby opossums will make a sneezing noise to signal their mother.
Opossums have a remarkably robust immune system, and show partial or total immunity to the venom of rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and other pit vipers. Thanks to their lower blood temperature, rabies is almost unknown in opossums.
The opossum lifespan is unusually short for a mammal of its size, usually only 2 to 4 years. Senescence is rapid.
The opossum was described as early as 1565 in the published letter entitled "Carigueya, Seu Marsupiale Americanum Masculum. Or, The Anatomy of a Male Opossum: In a Letter to Dr Edward Tyson, from Mr William Cowper, Chirurgeon, and Fellow of the Royal Society, London. To Which are Premised Some Further Observations on the Opossum; And a New Division of Terrestrial Brute Animals, Particularly of Those That Have Their Feet Formed Like Hands. Where an Account is Given of Some Animals Not Yet Described", by Edward Tyson, M. D. Fellow of the College of Physicians and of the Royal Society. The letter suggests even earlier descriptions.
Use as food
Historically, hunters in the Caribbean would place a barrel with fresh or rotten fruit to attract opossums who would feed on the fruit or insects. Cubans growing up in the mid-twentieth century tell of brushing the maggots out of the mouths of "manicou" caught in this manner to prepare them for consumption. It is said also that the gaminess of the meat causes gas.
In Mexico, opossums are known as "tlacuache" or "tlaquatzin". Their tails are eaten as a folk remedy to improve fertility.
Opossum oil (Possum grease) is high in essential fatty acids and has been used as a chest rub and a carrier for arthritis remedies given as topical salves.
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