Opossum vs. possum — Jocelyn’s student essay

Opossum Vs. Possum

Although similar in name, opossums and possums are different creatures with their own unique little habits, habitats, diets, and behaviors. The easiest way to determine if a creature is an opossum or a possum is to take into account its location. If in the western hemisphere, you are most likely in contact with an opossum. On the other hand, if in Australia or New Zealand, you are most likely in contact with a possum. Simply put, there are many, many ways in identifying the kind of marsupial you are observing.

As a start, the physical characteristics of opossums and possums are wildly different! Opossums are known to have long, narrow snouts, while possums sport a rounder, flatter facial structure. The tail is a major giveaway when comparing these two marsupials, as the opossum possesses a hairless, rather rat-like tail. An article from Wildlife Removal USA stated,

“The [opossum] can use the tail in grabbing food, or items for shelter to its den, and can also use its tail as a fifth limb when climbing on different surfaces” (Wildlife Removal USA). Possums, while having the same prehensible abilities, have bushy, dark tails. Regarding color variation, it would be naive to think that all opossums and possums look the same. However, the most distinctive and recognizable opossum is the Virginia Opossum, a gray, scraggly-furred critter the size of a domestic cat.


The diet and shelter preferences of these critters are also somewhat unique. While both could be considered omnivorous, there are clear distinctions between their preferred diets, with most opossum species having preferences for meat and most possum species having preferences for fruits and vegetables. Catherine Tudish, a member of the Northern Woodlands organization with the mission to advance forest stewardship wrote, “Opossums do not hibernate.

Except for denning up for short periods during the very coldest weather, they must be out and about all winter searching for food, which makes them extremely vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite” (Tudish). On the opposite side of the spectrum are the possums, who prefer subtropical climates as opposed to colder ones. These two marsupials’ lifespans are drastically different which could be due in part to their respective climates, with the warmer-habitat possums commonly reaching 13 or more years of age, and the colder-habitat opossums only averaging out at around 1 or 2 years.

One of the most notable quirks an opossum has is the ability to “play dead”. Despite the humor many people associate with this defense tactic, opossums don’t have control of their bodies when they go into this comatose-like state. Robert John, a member of J&J Exterminating Corporation wrote, “The intense fear they experience actually causes their bodies to seize up and flop dead to the ground. This comatose state can last for hours, with the opossum stuck staring blankly ahead and their tongue sticking out till the state passes.

When an opossum goes into this comatose state, they also begin to emit a foul odor similar to that of a decaying corpse” (John). Possums on the other hand are far braver. BirdGard Australia, a company dedicated to Australian pest control wrote, “Brushtail possums have a range of vocalizations such as clicks, hisses, grunts and coughs, chattering and screeching. Ringtail Possums will secrete a strong smelling liquid from their anal glands if handled. If they are trapped, possums will defend themselves” (BirdGard Australia).

With visuals, consideration of the territory, and surrounding food, it can be a little easier to identify whether a marsupial is an opossum or a possum (or neither)! Many refer to opossums as giant rats, while others refer to possums as a cross between a squirrel and a chinchilla. Whether you have a like or dislike towards these animals, it is important to be able to identify which is which if the situation presents itself. Animals crossing over to areas they don’t belong in and becoming invasive do not have a good outcome on an innocent ecosystem.

Author: Jocelyn Vasquez

University of Arizona

Works Cited

“All about the Opossum Tail.” wildliferemovalusa.com/opossumtail.html.

Tudish, Catherine. “Opossums Find Cold Comfort in New England’s Winters: The Outside Story.” Center for Northern Woodlands Education, EBree Design, northernwoodlands.org/outside_story/article/opossums-find-cold-comfort-in-new-englands-winters.

John, Robert. “Opossums Can’t Actually Choose When To Play Dead.” J & J Exterminating, 16 Jan. 2019, www.jjext.com/opossums-cant-actually-choose-play-dead.

“Top 10 Facts About Possums in Australia.” Bird Gard Australia, 21 June 2019, www.birdgard.com.au/articles/top-10-facts-about-possums/.

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