Reflections in Nature: Animal marvels

Animal marvels

BILL BOWER/Sun-Gazette Correspondent A young Bill Bower holds a young opossum in the fall.

On Jan. 27, the temperature was above freezing when we woke up, so it was no surprise when, later in the day, I saw a road-killed opossum.

Raccoons, opossums and skunks are animals that we refer to as “light sleepers.” Although they den up for the winter, during a warm spell, these animals get up and move about in search of food.

Of the three, the opossum is the only one that is not a true native of Pennsylvania. At one time, opossums were found only in the southern states; however, since the 1890s they have expanded their range to include Canada and west of the Rocky Mountains.

Although opossums are silent animals, if cornered, they will hiss, growl and show all of their 50 teeth. Opossums have more teeth than any other mammal in Pennsylvania. Most people will agree that opossums look like rats.

With a top speed of about 4 mph, opossums are not known for being swift, meaning they cannot outrun their predators. However, being built close to the ground enables opossums to sometimes elude predators by going through dense underbrush.

Opossums are adept climbers and often climb trees to escape danger.

Of course, their most noted means of protection is feigning death (playing possum). When this occurs the opossum collapses onto its side, becomes stiff and motionless. Its eyes and mouth will remain open, with the tongue hanging out.

Then, the breathing becomes very shallow (about one breath per minute), and the animal looks dead, feels dead and exudes a musky fluid from its anal glands. Now, it smells dead.

Since most predators want to kill their own prey, the predator usually leaves this smelly feigning animal alone. The opossum can lie in this state for five to 10 minutes or even as long as an hour. The opossum’s head rises, and if the danger has passed, it jumps up and runs away.

Biologists aren’t sure if the opossum is in shock when appearing dead or does so voluntarily. One theory is that the opossum’s body creates a chemical substance that affects the nerve center in the brain, which short circuits, causing a paralysis of the muscles. It is likened to the adrenaline pumped into the human body in a time of stress, except we are sped up by the adrenaline, and the opossum is slowed down by its substance.

The opossum has a very small brain, indicating that it is a dumb animal; however, it has been around since the time of the dinosaurs and has expanded its range through the ages, so it is definitely a survivalist.

The opossum does not have hair on its ears or tail and does not have a heavy winter coat. So, during our northern winters, these body parts are often frostbitten. If you’ve ever seen an opossum with either the tips of its ears or part of its tail missing, this was caused by frostbite.

In Native American folklore, many tales have been told as to how the opossum ended up with no hair on its tail, and the following is one: At one time, the opossum had a long and bushy tail and was very proud of it. The opossum, fox and rabbit were stealing corn from a cornfield near a graveyard when all of a sudden a ghost from the graveyard jumped out at them. They started running. Since the opossum was the slowest of the animals the ghost caught it just as it was climbing over a fence. The ghost reached out and grabbed it by the tail, but the opossum kept going. The ghost ended up with a handful of hair, and the opossum hasn’t had hair on its tail ever since.

In our area, the opossum’s breeding season begins in late February to early March. Thirteen days after being bred the female will give birth to as many as 24 young, with an average of nine. They appear as tiny white worms, with enlarged heads and front feet that already have toenails. These toenails enable the opossum to crawl up through the female’s belly fur and into the pouch.

The opossum is North America’s only marsupial.

Once inside the pouch the young must find a milk station. Usually, the mother has an average of 13 teats. The teat, which is long and thin, reaches down the throat of the young, and once sucking begins, a ball forms on the end so the young cannot fall off. Some of the young opossums never make it into the pouch, and some that do never find a milk station and end up dying.

During the next 70 days, the young stay attached to the teats and finish developing. At this age, they are fully furred and the size of mice. They will begin to venture out of the pouch while hanging on to the fur on mom’s back as she ambles through the woods.

If the young fall off, they are left behind; however, at the ripe old age of three months, the young will soon be striking out on their own. The young opossums seen in the fall are from females that have had a second litter.

When thinking about all of the opossum’s abilities we can’t help but marvel at one of the many wonders of nature.

Bower retired after 34 years as a wildlife conservation officer for the state Game Commission. Questions and comments may be sent to him at 1224 Redington Ave., Troy PA 16947.