The “Opossum” and the “Possum”

   The “possum” or “opossum” is a marsupial misunderstood as much as the spelling of its name.  This lowly animal is frequently encountered by humans as it maladroitly traverses a road at night with the drama illuminated by the headlights of the witness’s vehicle.  Sometimes the drama is a comedy, and others it is a tragedy.  The uniqueness of the opossum outside of its road-crossing ineptitude is easily overlooked and some enlightenment is in order.

   The opossum is the Western Hemisphere’s only marsupial.  Marsupials are a group of mammals with short gestational periods whose mothers house them in their pouch (marsupium) after birth while they nurse and develop until they are able to gain independence.  The mother’s fur-lined marsupium usually has thirteen nipples to accommodate up to twenty-five baby opossums, with normally only seven to eight surviving.  “The weaned young are often carried on their mother’s back for some time, until they become fully independent” (Freedman 1)

   Opossums are generally nocturnal omnivores, dining on a variety of available plants and animals across North, Central and South America.  The opossum, in the face of danger from predators, may pretend to be dead by playing possum–rolling over on its back or side, closing its eyes and sticking its tongue out.  A variety of other animals feign death, but the opossum cornered the colloquialism, “playing possum” (“Playing hog-nosed snake” just doesn’t have the same ‘ring to it’).  Contrary to their terrestrial ability, opossums are competent in their arboreal skills.  They are adept climbers and known to hang by their tails from time to time.  The opossum is sometimes hunted and trapped for its fur and for food, but not so often now as in times past.

   The “possum” of Australia and New Zealand, however, is not as unique as its cousins in the Americas.  It is just one of many marsupials roaming about the other side of the Earth, including such animals as the kangaroo and koala.  And, there is a wider variety of species of possums found in Australia.  An adult Mountain Brushtail Possum is about the same size as the Virginia Opossum, whereas an adult Ledbetter Possum is about one-third the size of its American cousin.  It turns out that the Aussie “possum is a shortened form of opossum from the North American Indian language Virginia Algonquian” (“Word Watch” 1).  The English word for this marsupial undoubtedly derived from what the natives called it in the New World.  So, one can win a spelling bee by spelling “possum” without the leading silent “o”, as long as one knows which side of the world he or she is on.

   The opossum is unique.  One joke in the South is:  “Why did the chicken cross the road?  It wanted to show the ‘possum how to do it.”  Should the reader encounter this marsupial on a lonely road one night, perhaps he or she will have a greater regard for this animal that likely survived twenty brothers and sisters,.  And, hopefully, his demise will not be the thump of the tire on the reader’s vehicle.


Works cited

Freedman, Bill. “Opossums.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. 3rd ed. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 2872-2873. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Viggers, Karen, and David Lindenmayer. “The Other Brushtail Possum.” Nature Australia 27.6 (2002): 46. Environment Complete. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

Lindenmayer, David. “Stirring the Possum.” Nature Australia 27.4 (2002): 26. Environment Complete. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.

“Word Watch.” Targeted News Service.  May 29 2012. ProQuest. Web. 25 Mar. 2015


[This work was originally composed and submitted for an English class assignment on 2 April 2015]


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