It is 2AM on a Sunday morning and my terrier is outside barking like there is no end. I roll out of bed, rub my eyes, slip on my house shoes, grab my flashlight, and stumble out the back door. There he is, standing in his defensive posture, teeth bared in a growl between barks. “Bryn, back,” I say, but he ignores me. “Back,” I command in a louder, more stern voice. He takes two steps back, but re-directs his attention. I swing the light in the direction of his focus and there it is … a ‘possum.
You may see a possum during the day, but they are primarily nocturnal coming out, seemingly, in the very early hours. Although us Texans call them possums, they are actually Opossums. Our friendly night visitor, Didelphis virginiana, is prevalent across Texas (except for the arid Trans Pecos and Llano Estacado regions) and the United States as our only native marsupial. Born blind and furless, the babies are about the size of a honey bee.
They crawl into their mother’s pouch (marsupium), latch onto a teat, and hang out there. Baby possum does not suckle. Mom’s teat swells in Baby’s mouth and her milk slowly leaches into it. In about seven weeks baby is strong enough to pull away, climb out onto Mom’s back, and enjoy the ride. That lasts only about three months when Mom brushes them off to fend for themselves.
With their long snout, black eyes, and pointed ears, opossums seem formidable. That is because they are “living fossils” remaining relatively unchanged for at least 50 million years. Their survival throughout time is their ability(?) to play possum, that is, play dead.
Contrary to playing, their defense system has an involuntary comatose-like state brought on by extreme fear. This “fainting” may continue from several minutes to several hours. The opossum actually looks “dead” in that its body is limp, its front feet form into balls, drool runs out of its mouth, and its breath is barely noticeable. Once the danger has passed, the opossum “comes to” and waddles on his way.
As omnivores the opossum eats grass, nuts, and fruit, but they will also eat mice, insects (including roaches), worms, slugs, and snakes (including venomous ones). They are helpful in controlling the overpopulation of snakes, rodents, and insects, especially ticks. The opossum’s grooming routine is similar to that of a domestic cat. During its brief two to three year lifespan, it may consume up to 5,000 ticks.
Opossums appear to be not affected by tick-born illnesses. Nor are they susceptible to snake venom. An opossum’s blood contains a single desired peptide that renders it immune to pit viper venom, including Texas’ favorite, the western diamond back rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox). Claire Komives, a chemical engineer at San Jose State University, is working to refine a process to produce antivenom from opossum blood at a cost of about $1 per dose, as compared to today’s cost of $100 per dose.
So what did I do with my backyard, late night visitor? Nothing. I left him for “dead”. The next morning, he had disappeared back into the woods, probably in search of a good meal.