Find virginia opossum information at Animal Diversity Web
0.30 to 6.40 kg
(0.66 to 14.08 lbs)
35 to 94 cm; avg. 74 cm
(13.78 to 37.01 in; avg. 29.13 in)
Virginia opossums have a long head with a pointed snout and long whiskers. Their long tails have little fur and are scaly in appearance. Females have a fur-lined pouch in their belly in which they carry their young. Fur color varies depending on where they live. In northern areas, they have thick white underfur with black tips, and on top of this fur is a grayish protective coat of hair. Southern populations have much less underfur. Most Virginia opossums have white cheek hairs. Virginia opossums are about the size of a large house cat. Their total length varies between 350 and 940 mm. Their tail makes up between 216 and 470 mm of this length. Males are larger than females, weighing 0.8 to 6.4 kg, while females weigh 0.3 to 3.7 kg.
Virginia opossums are native to the Nearctic and found in North America and Central America. They are the only marsupials native to someplace other than the Australian region. Virginia opossums are naturally found in areas east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States. They can also be found on the west coast of the United States, though this is not part of their original range; they were introduced by humans to the west coast. Virginia opossums are also found through most of Central America. The range of Virginia opossums is expanding northward, and they are now found in southern Ontario, Canada. (McManus, 1974)
Virginia opossums are found in a variety of environments, ranging from relatively dry to more wet environments. They prefer areas of deciduous forest where permanent water is available, especially streams and swamps. Virginia possums also do well in urban and suburban environments.
The mating period of Virginia opossums generally does not last longer than 36 hours. Females mate with only one male, and they reject other males after mating. Eggs are fertilized in the Fallopian tubes.
Virginia opossums mate between January and July.
1 to 13; avg. 7 to 9
12.50 days (average)
95 to 105 days
6 to 12 months
6 to 12 months
The mating season of Virginia opossums lasts from January to July. Females are pregnant for 12 to 13 days. Females generally give birth to 7 to 9 babies per litter, though they can have has many as 13 in a litter. They have 1 to 2 litters each year. Young opossums weigh about 0.16 g at birth. Just after birth, the tiny young crawl into their mother's pouch and attach themselves to a nipple. Babies remain attached to their mother's nipple for the first 50 to 65 days. Young are weaned after 95 to 105 days and are no longer dependent on their mother. Females are able to breed in their first year.
Female Virginia opossums provide considerable care to their young after birth. After young are born, they crawl to their mother's pouch and affix themselves to a nipple. Babies remain attached to their mother's nipple for 50 to 65 days. For the next month, young continue to nurse but often leave their mother's pouch. They remain close to their mother when outside of her pouch. When young are mouse-sized, they often ride on their mother's back, especially at night. Young Virginia opossums are weaned at 95 to 105 days of age and are no longer dependent on their mother. There is no maternal bond between the mother and young after they are weaned.
3 years (high)
Virginia opossums rarely live longer than 18 months. The oldest known opossum in the wild was 3 years old when last captured. Although they are preyed upon by several predators, most are killed by cars.
0.00 to 0.23 km^2
Virginia opossums are nocturnal animals, which means that they are most active at night. Although females sometimes live in small groups, Virginia opossums are mostly solitary and generally do not get along well with one another. Males even fight with each other when in the same area. Groups of opossums are composed primarily of young because of their short life span. Both males and females are very aggressive. They try to scare away threats by clicking their teeth, growling, or screeching, but they usually play dead when they encounter a more powerful opponent. Opossums usually travel on land but also swim in some cases to escape danger. Virginia opossums use their hind feet to clean their fur and their front feet to wash their face. Females transport young by placing them on their tail and back.
Virginia opossums in eastern Texas have a home range averaging 4.6 ha, though home ranges vary from 0.12 to 23.4 ha. Home ranges frequently overlap.
When threatened, Virginia opossums click their teeth, growl, and screech. They have poor vision, but this is not a considerable problem as they are mostly active at night.
Virginia opossums are omnivorous, and a majority of their diet is composed of insects and remains of dead animals (carrion). They are also known to eat plants, including fruits and grains in season, as well as worms, snakes, insects, eggs, young birds, and garbage. Virginia opossums are immune to rattlesnake venom and actively hunt rattlesnakes. After eating, Virginia opossums groom themselves like a cat.
Virginia opossums are well-known for pretending to be dead to avoid being eaten by predators. This is called "playing dead" or "playing possum." When threatened, Virginia opossums enter a catatonic state where they appear to be dead; they go limp and their breathing becomes almost undetectable. They re-awaken when the perceived danger passes.
Common predators of Virginia opossums include coyotes, foxes, bobcats, dogs, large owls, and hawks. Juveniles may also be preyed on by snakes and smaller birds of prey, such as falcons. Humans hunt Virginia opossums for food (McManus, 1974; MN Department of Natural Resources, 2011).
As scavengers, Virginia opossums play an important role in the ecosystem by eating foods and garbage that other animals may not. They are important prey items for a variety of predators.
Virginia opossums raid garbage cans in search of food, though their foraging activity is typically not disruptive (Baker, 1983). They occasionally enter hen houses, causing problems and eating eggs, although they rarely feed on live animals. Virginia opossums also can carry and transmit human diseases, such as rabies.
In the southeastern United States, opossums are sometimes hunted for food. Opossums are used as research animals in a variety of laboratories, and their fur is occasionally used by humans. They also help to control garden pests.
Virginia opossums adapt well to human presence. Their range also is expanding, and their populations are increasing.
When America was first colonized by Europeans, Virginia opossums did not occur north of Pennsylvania. In time, they moved north and westward into the Great Plains. In 1890, Virginia opossums were introduced to California and spread along the west coast. In Michigan they are spreading into the Upper Peninsula.
Gail McCormick, Special Projects
Tanya Dewey, University of Michigan
George Hammond, University of Michigan
Toni Lynn Newell, University of Michigan
Rachel Berg, University of Michigan
McManus, J.J. (2 May 1974) "Didelphis virginiana." Mammalian Species. The American Society of Mammalogists, 40.
Baker, R.H. 1983. Michigan Mammals. Michigan State University Press. United States of America.
Costello, R., A. Rosenberger. 2002. "Didelphis virginiana" (On-line). Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History North American Mammals. Accessed March 27, 2011 at http://www.mnh.si.edu/mna/image_info.cfm?species_id=65.
Hartman, C. 1952. Possums. Austin: University of Texas Press.
MN Department of Natural Resources. 2011. "Virginia Opossum Didelphis virginiana" (On-line). Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Accessed March 27, 2011 at http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/virginiaopossum.html.
Texas Tech University. 1997. "Virginia Opossum" (On-line). The Mammals of Texas - Online Edition. Accessed March 27, 2011 at http://www.nsrl.ttu.edu/tmot1/didevirg.htm.
Wilson, D., S. Ruff. 1999. The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press.