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  • Melissa Morgan-Oakes

Welcome, Opossums!

The Southern Vermont Natural History Museum is thrilled to introduce our supporters to what may become our newest education ambassadors. A first for Vermont and for the SVNHM, we are pleased to add Virginia opossum joeys to our education team. We are very excited to be working in close partnership with the state on this pilot program to expand the opportunities for wildlife and conservation education here in Vermont.

A passel (the very fun word for a group of opossums) of ten were brought into a rehabilitation facility in northern Vermont after being orphaned when their mother was hit by a car. Seven of the young were successfully reintroduced to the wild. The three remaining animals showed difficulty with walking and climbing. After efforts to restore use of their feet was unsuccessful, it became obvious that their ability to evade their natural predators was severely compromised.

Thanks to a cooperative pilot program with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, we are able to offer them a home at the Museum. We continue to work closely with state officials to monitor the wellbeing of these new ambassadors, while providing visitors an up-close look at this nocturnal omnivore.

About the size of a house cat when fully grown, opossums are members of the marsupial family. Marsupials are a type of mammal that gives birth to hairless young, about the size of a small jelly bean. After their birth the tiny joeys climb through their mothers’ fur to a pouch located on her abdomen where they continue their maturation. Although an adult female opossum occasionally has as many as 20 babies at one time, it is likely that she will only successfully rear about 8 of those young to maturity. As the young grow, the mother’s pouch becomes full. By about 10 weeks of age the young joeys will leave the pouch, riding on their mother’s back until they are old enough to be on their own. During this time, they learn to find food and avoid predators. By about 4-5 months of age they are ready to leave their mother and begin life on their own.

Many things about this animal make them unique in North America. On their rear foot they have an opposable clawless toe called a hallux that works a bit like our thumb, swinging around to help them to grasp tree limbs when climbing. They do not hibernate like some of our mammals but they do limit the amount of time spent out in the open during winter months, as they are subject to frostbite, especially on their feet, tails and ears. In fact, many rehabbers use ear damage as a way to estimate the age of an opossum that comes into their care - the more damage, the older the animal is likely to be. Short lived in the wild, most opossums will only live for a year or two before falling victim to predators, nature, or human and pet activity. In captivity they can live for up to four years.

Opossums don’t put much effort into building their own homes and usually will only occupy the same home for a few days at a time before moving on. They prefer to find an abandoned burrow or nest from another species. They will also seek out warm sheltered spaces under structures such as barns or sheds. This habit occasionally puts them into close contact with humans. But don’t fear these nocturnal back yard dwellers! Rabies is extremely rare in opossums, and using their 50 sharp teeth - the most of any mammal in North America - they dine on a steady diet of fruits, insects, snails and small rodents, helping to keep our rodent populations in check. An excellent self-groomer, they also consume up to 95% of the ticks that regularly attach to their bodies and fur, thereby decreasing the number of these disease carrying pests in our wild spaces.

For now, staff and volunteers are working hard to learn everything we can about the care of these animals in captivity, and we hope to introduce them to the public soon. We are very grateful to the State of Vermont for the opportunity to work with them on this pilot program that may allow us to expand our educational offerings. We look forward to supporting the state as they consider creating guidelines for future captive mammal permitting, and to this expanded opportunity to further fulfill our mission of educating the public about the important role they can play in wildlife conservation.



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