Brer Opossum is the subject of folklore

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-117994066921762.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘“A possum roasted with sweet taters is heaps better than its smarts.”‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11799406063005.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘After a gestation period of of 11-13 days, the “embryos,” smaller than a dime, climb up through the hair of the mother and enter the vertical opening of her pouch. There, they will attach themselves to a teat and nurse for 2-3 months. Then the young crawl out of her pouch and cling to her back for an additional 2-3 months until they are ready to make it on their own.‘);

The Virginia opossum is one of the most numerous larger mammals to be found in the Rock River Valley. It occurs throughout the Eastern and Midwestern parts of this country and into Canada. The opossum may be familiar to some readers as Pogo, the star of a popular comic strip created years ago by Walt Kelly. In any event, this species must be the loneliest mammal in the United States as it has no close relatives on this continent north of Mexico.

The “possum” is a primitive mammal belonging to a group zoologists call marsupials, the females of which have a pouch (the marsupium) on their undersides in which the young are nurtured. Marsupials are numerous in other parts of the world and include the familiar kangaroo and Tasmanian devil of Australia. Marsupials were among the first mammals to evolve and probably shared this planet for a brief geological time with the dinosaurs. Though considered to be among the least intelligent of all mammals, our friend the opossum must be doing something right to have survived so long. The key to its longevity is its ability to adapt. It will eat almost anything of animal or vegetable origin, and can occupy any number of ecological niches. It readily makes its home in any sheltered site such as a culvert, hollow log, abandoned burrow, or under the front porch of your home. And a large number of offspring are produced with each generation and are nourished with milk from the mother’s mammary glands.

It is a nocturnal species and is rarely seen in the daytime. About the only time a local resident may see one is when it has been hit by a car and is lying dead along the roadside. Opossums thrive in wooded areas, and a survey some years ago of an extensive oak-hickory forest along the Sangamon River in central Illinois revealed there were about 300 of the marsupials per square mile. This number will diminish to about 10 per square mile in areas that have been farmed extensively.

It is quite certain the opossum will never win a beauty or popularity contest when compared to most other mammals. From an aesthetic viewpoint, it is not an attractive animal, and its pelt is of little or no value. Possum hunting is not a popular sport, and few people outside of the rural south enjoy “possum and sweet taters,” which is considered a delicacy in a few areas.

Because the opossum is a unique and rather strange animal, many myths, stories, and legends have arisen concerning its life processes. This is especially true when it comes to the act of reproduction. The fact that the intromitent organ or penis of the male opossum is forked has given rise to false suppositions concerning its mating activities. According to one story, the forked organ is inserted into the nostrils of the female, and sperm cells are deposited into the nasal passages. The female supposedly then thrusts her nose into her marsupium and sneezes violently, thus fertilizing the eggs there. Actually, the forked penis of the male is correlated with the forked reproductive tract of the female, and opossums mate in the same way as other mammals.

About 15 to 20 young are born in a very immature stage and immediately crawl up the mother’s abdomen and climb into the pouch, where each one tries to attach to a teat or nipple. A female opossum has only 13 nipples, so only the strongest survive. At birth, the young are so small that if one were placed on a penny, only Lincoln’s head and neck would be obscured. The young lucky enough to find a food supply remain firmly attached to the nipple for about 70 days before they leave the marsupium.

The act of “playing possum” when attacked is considered by some as a survival adaptation. When approached by an enemy, the opossum does not fight or run away, but feigns death by sinking to the ground, closing its eyes, and extruding the tongue. This complicated charade is supposed to fool the predator. Other students of animal behavior believe the brain of the opossum is so small it lacks the intelligence to pull off this complicated act. They suspect the animal actually faints from fright. This latter theory makes sense as a predator would seem to prefer to deal with a comatose prey animal than with one that is alive and kicking.

An old farmer friend of mine on Maryland’s eastern shore once thusly described the opossum to me: “A possum roasted with sweet taters is heaps better than its smarts.”

from the May 23-29, 2007, issue

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