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Baby Opossums

Reading Time: 7 mins

1. Opossums are Born Blind and Most Siblings Die After Birth

Baby opossums, also known as joeys, are nature's little marvels that belong to the marsupial family. These fascinating creatures are native to North and South America. Opossums usually mate between January and July. Female opossums have a short gestation period of about 12-14 days.

Baby opossums are born extremely underdeveloped, about the size of a honeybee. They are blind, hairless, and have only partially formed limbs. At this stage, they must make their way to their mother's pouch, where they will continue to grow and develop. The mother can give birth to a litter of up to 20 joeys; however, only a few will survive due to limited space in the pouch.



2. Baby Opossums Live in the Mother's Pouch for an Extended Period

Opossums are the only marsupials found in North America. Inside the mother's pouch, the joeys latch onto one of her 13 teats to feed on milk. They remain in the pouch for about 60-70 days, during which they develop fur, open their eyes, and strengthen their limbs. Once they outgrow the pouch, they will start venturing outside, clinging to their mother's back as she moves around.

At around 100 days old, baby opossums begin to wean off their mother's milk and start eating solid food. They learn to forage and hunt by observing their mother's behavior. By the time they are 4-5 months old, they become fully independent and start to establish their own territories.



3. Baby Opossums are Excellent Climbers

Baby opossums have a long, hairless, and flexible tail. As the joeys grow older, their tails become stronger and more dexterous, allowing them to carry nesting materials and hang from branches. However, contrary to popular belief, opossums do not hang from their tails while sleeping.

Opossums have opposable thumbs on their hind feet, which provide them with excellent grasping abilities. This feature, combined with their prehensile tail, makes baby opossums highly skilled climbers and allows them to escape from predators by scaling trees and other structures.



4. Unusual Features that Distinguish Baby Opossums from Other Mammals

Baby opossums have more teeth than any other North American mammal, with a total of 50 teeth. They have an unusual dental arrangement, with incisors, canines, premolars, and molars in both upper and lower jaws.

Baby opossums have a robust immune system that makes them resistant to many diseases, including snake venom. They produce a protein called Lethal Toxin-Neutralizing Factor (LTNF), which neutralizes the venom of various snake species, making opossums immune to their bites.

Opossums have been around for a long time, with fossil records dating back to approximately 65 million years ago. They have survived various climate changes and mass extinctions, making them one of the oldest surviving mammal species on Earth.



5. Baby Opossums Display Instinctive Defense Mechanisms in the Face of Danger

One of the most well-known opossum behaviors is "playing dead" or "playing possum." When threatened, an opossum may enter a state of involuntary paralysis, known as thanatosis. During this state, the opossum appears lifeless, with its mouth open, tongue hanging out, and emitting a foul odor. This behavior is a defense mechanism, as predators may lose interest in an apparently dead animal.

Moreover, when faced with danger, baby opossums may instinctively freeze and remain motionless, hoping to go unnoticed by predators. They may also seek shelter in small crevices, hollow logs, or dense vegetation to avoid detection. Although not highly vocal, baby opossums can emit distress calls when threatened. These high-pitched squeaks may alert their mother or siblings to potential danger, allowing them to take evasive action.



6. Baby Opossum Diet: What Do They Eat?

For the first 60-70 days of their lives, baby opossums rely on their mother's milk for nourishment. As joeys begin to outgrow the pouch and explore their surroundings, they gradually transition to a solid diet. At this stage, they start consuming insects, fruits, and small mammals, mimicking their mother's omnivorous eating habits.

If you come across orphaned baby opossums that require human intervention, it is crucial to provide them with the appropriate diet. A specialized marsupial milk replacer is necessary to meet their nutritional needs. This formula can be obtained from a veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitation center. To feed orphaned joeys, use a syringe or dropper to administer the milk replacer. Be cautious not to force-feed or cause aspiration, as this can lead to pneumonia. Feed the joeys slowly.

As the orphaned joeys grow and develop, gradually introduce solid food items into their diet. Start with soft foods, such as mashed fruits, insects, and cooked vegetables. As they become more adept at eating solid food, you can offer a wider variety of items, including small mammals and raw vegetables.



7. Why We Should not Keep Baby Opossums as Pets

In many jurisdictions, it is illegal to keep opossums as pets without a proper permit, as they are considered wildlife.

Baby opossums require specific care, including a specialized diet, proper housing, and veterinary care from a professional experienced with opossums. This can be time-consuming, expensive, and challenging for the average pet owner.

Opossums are primarily nocturnal, which means they are most active during the night. This can be disruptive to a household, as the opossum may be noisy or require attention when you are trying to sleep.

Opossums have relatively short lifespans, typically ranging from 2 to 4 years in captivity. This can be emotionally challenging for pet owners who become attached to their animal companions.

Even when raised in captivity, opossums retain their wild instincts. They may be unpredictable, defensive, or display aggressive behaviors, such as biting or hissing, when they feel threatened. Opossums are not domesticated animals and do not typically form strong bonds with humans like dogs or cats. They may tolerate human interaction but are unlikely to seek out affection or companionship.



Misconceptions and Myths about Baby Opossums

1. Myth: Baby Opossums are aggressive and dangerous

Debunked: Baby Opossums are generally shy and non-aggressive creatures. They prefer to avoid confrontation and will often "play dead" (a behavior known as "playing possum") when threatened. While they do have sharp teeth, they are more likely to use them for defense rather than attack. Opossums are not considered a significant threat to humans or pets.

2. Myth: Baby Opossums are dirty and carry diseases

Debunked: Baby Opossums are actually quite clean animals, with grooming habits similar to those of cats. While they can carry some diseases, such as leptospirosis and tularemia, the risk of transmission to humans or pets is relatively low. Moreover, as previously mentioned, opossums help control tick populations, which can reduce the spread of tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease.

3. Myth: Baby Opossums are related to rats

Debunked: Although Baby Opossums have a somewhat rat-like appearance, they are not rodents. Opossums are marsupials, which means they carry their young in a pouch, similar to kangaroos and koalas. They are the only marsupials native to North America.

4. Myth: Opossums are pests that destroy gardens and property

Debunked: Opossums are generally not destructive to gardens or property. They do not dig burrows, chew on wiring, or cause significant damage to plants. In fact, their diet of insects and small mammals can be beneficial for gardens, as they help control pest populations.

5. Myth: Opossums are nocturnal and only come out at night

Debunked: While opossums are primarily nocturnal, they can occasionally be active during the day, especially when searching for food or caring for their young. Seeing an opossum during daylight hours does not necessarily indicate that it is sick or in distress.

6. Myth: Opossums are slow and clumsy

Debunked: Opossums may appear slow and clumsy, but they are actually quite agile. They have strong tails that can be used for grasping and climbing, and they are skilled swimmers. Opossums can also move quickly when necessary, such as when escaping from predators.



Sources:

"Opossums." National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/group/opossums/
"Opossum." San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. Available at: https://animals.sandiegozoo.org/animals/opossum
McRuer, D., & Jones, K. (2009). "Wildlife Rehabilitation: Basic Life Support". In: Wildlife Medicine and Rehabilitation: Self-Assessment Color Review. CRC Press.
Godfrey, G. K. (1985). "The Mammals of Australia". Reed Books.
Hossler, E. W. (2010). "Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine Current Therapy". Elsevier Health Sciences.
Tyndale-Biscoe, H. (2005). "Life of Marsupials". CSIRO Publishing.
Nowak, R. M. (1999). "Walker's Mammals of the World". The Johns Hopkins University Press.