The Overlooked Opossum

by | Apr 11, 2023

Above: An opossum with her joeys (aka babies). Image by daynaw3990 from Pixabay.

When the weather gets really cold, windy or even boiling hot, I think about how wild animals deal with these harsh elements. All wildlife have adaptations that help them survive. Coyotes have thick fur. Deer have excellent camouflage. Then there’s the opossum. The one thing most people know about opossums is that they are really good at playing dead. I’m not sure I would want that as my superpower. 

But opossums are really good at that. When they play dead they literally go unconscious so if a predator nips at them they won’t move. They also secrete a smelly liquid, appear stiff and when they are initially threatened, it’s not even a controlled decision. They involuntarily “drop dead.” 

The first time I saw an opossum, I thought I was about to see an attack on a cat or a raccoon. All three animals were on high alert and fighting over a meal.  But instead of fighting, I saw the opossum open its mouth and then walk slowly away from the meal and into the woods. They try to avoid confrontation and are not aggressive. So if you see an opossum in your yard, be thankful. Not only are they docile, they eat snakes, mice, ticks, fleas and mosquitoes. They basically eat everything. Even roadkill. 

And that’s how they become roadkill. They move slowly and their gray fur and white face also hide them against light pavement. During a roadkill study done at Cole Middle School from 2002-10, opossums were consistently in the top five of the most road-killed animals in East Greenwich. 

To counter extinction by cars, opossums produce one to two litters per year and give birth to around seven joeys. I saw a mother carrying about 6 joeys on her back on Middle Road last year, between Basset and Stone Ridge Drive. My headlights froze her for about 15 seconds before she decided to open her mouth, show me her teeth and slowly creep across the road. Opossums have 50 teeth, the most of any land animal in North America. That’s impressive but 50 teeth won’t help you cross the road any faster. 

According to scientists, opossums started showing up in Rhode Island in the 1960s as they expanded out from the south. Some opossums have shortened ears and tails due to frostbite. They do not hibernate so when the temperature drops they spend more time in tree cavities, brush piles and burrows dug out by other animals. Opossums are native to North and South America; possums, meanwhile, are native to Australia, New Zealand and China.

Unlike coyotes, opossums don’t have to be frightened off if you see one in your yard. They don’t like confrontations and are probably looking for an easy meal. 

I asked Kelley Thurber, EG’s Animal Control officer, a couple of questions about her interactions with East Greenwich opossums. 

Did you ever have to catch an opossum? 

Yes, I have caught an opossum. A passerby witnessed one get hit by a car on his way to work one morning at the corner of Division Road and Crompton Road. That afternoon he called me when he realized it was still there and alive. I responded, put on some gloves and picked it up. It seemed fairly alert and being daytime it was slightly sluggish. Unhappy to be held but not putting up too much of a fight. I had on very thick gloves for my safety.  I was unsure of the extent of its injuries so I transported it to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Facility in South Kingstown.  

Do you know anyone who has been bitten by an opossum? 

I personally don’t know of anyone being bitten by one. They mainly play dead when scared but they will defend themselves if they feel threatened.

As for job related stories… Unfortunately they are one of the most common animals to be struck by vehicles. They are slow and awkward and tough to see at night. I am a big fan of them as they eat fleas, ticks and mosquitos and by doing this they help keep the rat and mice populations down. They rarely carry rabies as their body temperatures are too low for rabies to survive. And they are North America’s only marsupial. 

Eager to learn more? Here are sources I used for this article:

Anthony Burnett-Testa writes about nature for EG News and teaches computers at Cole Middle School.

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Gayle berry
Gayle berry
April 12, 2023 7:35 am

Anthony, I really enjoy your informative nature articles. Please write more often.

April 12, 2023 8:43 am

Great article. They are wonderful little animals. Thanks very much for posting.


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