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On possums and sweet taters

July 1, 1993

On possums and sweet taters

By Robert A. Hedeen

By Robert A, Hedeen

Naturalist

The Virginia opossum, familiar to some as Pogo, star of the once-popular Walt Kelly comic strip, is one of the most interesting and, perhaps, the loneliest mammal in the United States. It has no close relatives on this continent north of Mexico. “Brer” opossum is a member of a primitive group of mammals known as the marsupials, the females of which have a pouch (the marsupium) on their undersides in which the young are nurtured.

Occurring throughout the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the United States to southern Canada, the opossum is one of the most common wild mammals to be found in the Rockford area. As the opossum is primarily a nocturnal species, most sightings of it are of dead individuals killed by vehicles and lying along the roadside. Opossums thrive in heavily wooded areas, and a survey of an extensive oak-hickory forest in central Illinois along the Sangamon River revealed about 300 of the marsupials per square mile. In areas that are farmed extensively, this number may fall to about 10 per square mile.

This animal is literally a living fossil, as it has remained relatively unchanged since the Age of Reptiles, some 130 million years ago. Its early ancestors consorted with dinosaurs, flying reptiles, and other equally bizarre and now extinct animals. The opossum was able to survive because of its ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions, primarily through the acquisition of the ability to maintain a constant body temperature, insulating hair, and mammary glands to nourish the relatively large number of young produced.

The needs of this relic from the past are quite simple. It will eat almost anything of animal or plant origin and can set up housekeeping in any number of sheltered sites—an abandoned burrow, a culvert, a hollow log, or a cozy spot under the porch of your house.

It is quite certain the opossum will never win a beauty or popularity contest. From an aesthetic standpoint, it is not an attractive animal, and its pelt is of little or no value. Opossum hunting is not a popular sport, and “possum and sweet taters” appeal to few, if any, palates in northern Illinois. In certain parts of the South, this dish is savored in many rural areas.

Because the opossum is a rather unique animal, many stories, myths, legends, and downright falsehoods have arisen concerning its life processes, especially concerning its reproductive activities. The fact that the reproductive organ or penis of the male is forked has given rise to certain false suppositions concerning its mating activities. According to one story, and believed by many, the forked organ of the male is inserted into the nostrils of the female, and sperm cells are deposited into the nasal passages. The female then supposedly thrusts her nose into the pouch and sneezes violently, thus fertilizing eggs within the pouch. All development of the young is believed to occur within the marsupial incubator.

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 12 to 20 young are born in a very immature stage after a gestation period of only 14 days. At birth, the young are so small that if one were placed on a penny, only Lincoln’s head and neck would be obscured.

Immediately after birth, the young scramble up the mother’s belly and enter the pouch where each one tries to attach itself to a nipple or teat where it will remain for a period of about 70 days of continuing development The female, however, normally has only 13 teats, so it’s first come, first served. Those that do not do not attach to a teat do not receive the mother’s milk and quickly perish. There is no sharing, and a fundamental law of nature is invoked: only the strongest and best adapted will survive to produce the next generation.

The act of “playing possum” when attacked is interpreted by some students of animal behavior as a survival adaptation. When set upon by a predator, the opossum does not run or fight as do the majority of other animals when confronted with similar circumstances. Instead, it sinks to the ground, closes its eyes and allows its mouth to gape widely with the tongue extruded. Its breathing is hardly perceptible, and by feigning death in this manner, the predator is supposedly deceived. Other biologists believe the brain of the opossum is so small, it lacks the intelligence to orchestrate this charade and suspect they actually faint with fear. This latter theory makes sense as a predator would seem to prefer to deal with a comatose prey animal rather than with one who is alive and kicking.

An old farmer on Maryland’s eastern shore I knew for many years once summed it all up when he told me, “A possum roasted with sweet taters is heaps better than his smarts.”

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of eastern Maryland, with degrees in zoology and botany. He is a former professor of biological science. He has had 30 scientific papers published, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on marine biology of Maryland.

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