by Barbara Walvoord
On the north campus last week, several of us saw an opossum, in the middle of the day, right there on the lawn near some bushes, bold as you please. Opossums are nocturnal, so why was it there?
Opossums are immune to rabies, so that wasn’t it.
A bold animal in spring might be trying to draw you away from babies in a nearby den, but mama opossum carries her babies with her in a pouch, like a kangaroo, or, later, on her back. The mother’s womb is very small, so babies are born soon after conception. The tiny newborns (20 can fit into a teaspoon) must crawl up the mother’s belly into her marsupial pouch, attach to one of her teats, and hold on for dear life. The teat swells in the baby’s mouth to help it stay attached. We saw no bulging pouch or back-riding babies on this opossum, so perhaps she was between litters (she’ll have up to 3 per year).
Or maybe it was dad, able to be out and about at any time, unencumbered with the burdens of childcare.
When I said, “There’s a possum!” it slunk away into the brush. Opossums are gentle creatures, though when cornered, they may snarl and show their fifty (!) teeth, or experience an involuntary muscle freeze and fall over, “playing dead,” so a predator will lose interest. They can remain frozen for up to 4 hours.
Our opossum may have been looking for an early dinner. It eats the cockroaches, rats and mice we want to control, and it eats carrion, helping rid the earth of dead animals. It needs a lot of calcium, so it eats the bones of its prey.
Carrying your babies on your back slows you down, so mother opossums are especially vulnerable and may be killed by cats and dogs, or by your car. So day or night, keep an eye out for our Lathrop opossums.