Thursday, March 5, 2009

What's Op Op, Part 3

(More on the title of this blog.)

Opulent Opossum: It’s an attitude. Do you know much about opossums? Most people know them from seeing their poor broken bodies along the highways. Or, you’ll see them sniffing around your garbage cans at night.

Opossums are nocturnal omnivores. Often the size of grossly obese housecats, they have thinnish-looking gray fur, a white face with a long, pointy schnozzle, big beady brown eyes, and a slippery pink nose. Their legs seem too short. Their pink hands are nimble and delicate looking.

Surprised in a beam of light, opossums will just stare at you, like you’re invading their privacy (and well, you are). Harass them enough, and they roll on their backs and give a death hiss as if expiring their final breath. Yet as they waddle away in their getaway “flight,” you get the idea that deep down, though they’re cussing at you, they’re ultimately unflappable.

They’re amazing creatures. They’re common here in mid-Missouri, and they’re found all over the eastern United States and down into Mexico; also along the West Coast. They’re the only marsupial mammal in all of North America. (Compare that to about 120 different species of marsupials in Australia—think of it: The opossum’s relatives include critters like kangaroos, koalas, Tasmanian devils, bandicoots, and wombats.)

We all know about the special features of marsupials from watching the Discovery Channel, and possibly also from paying attention in biology class. Unlike placental mammals (such as us and mice and whales), marsupials don’t carry their young for long inside their uteruses; instead, they give birth to shockingly underdeveloped young that continue their development attached to teats within their mother’s pouch.

During a heat period, a female opossum (biologists call our species the Virginia opossum, Didelphis virginiana) commonly releases 22 eggs from her ovaries. Many of the young that develop and are born aren’t successful in the long, blind journey swimming through the mother’s fur from birth canal to pouch to nipple. There are only about a dozen teats in there, anyway.

Isn’t this fascinating? If you lived someplace that didn’t have any opossums, or any marsupials at all (such as all of Africa, all of Eurasia, and all of northern North America), wouldn’t our basic ol’ gray opossum seem like a nifty creature?

And cuddly looking. Once they get their fur, opossums are extremely cute. Really, it’s only when they’re hissing or trapped in the corner of your stupid junked-up shed that they look unwholesome. My Peterson’s Guide to mammals comments on their coats: “Fur salable, but of little value.” To which an opossum might reply, “So leave me alone, then, Jack!”

They’re expert climbers. Hey, don’t be too proud of your opposable thumbs, because our opossums have them too, as well as opposable big toes—the better to climb trees with. The prehensile tail also helps.

There are a lot more interesting facts I could tell you about opossums, but I’ll leave you with this: Even though they’re associated with the greasy dinner tables of hillbillies and other impoverished Southern types, of Elly May Clampett and her twangy grammar, even though opossums are not above clawing open your trash bag out on the curb and do kinda resemble enormous rats—

They’re pretty damn cool.

(Information in this post was gleaned from The Wild Mammals of Missouri, second revised edition, by Charles W. Schwartz and Elizabeth R. Schwartz, 2001. It is packed with cool information and illustrated with Charles’s incredible drawings.)

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