Friday, March 15, 2013

Possum and more feet

Right front
Left rear
What: Brooke alerted me to a roadkill opossum (Didelphis virginiana) on East Ave the other day that I picked up. I like to poke fun at these bizarre critters, since they're one of the most retched creatures we have. They amble in a dopey, almost drunken way, are often drooling, and are frequently the victims of frostbite, which reeks havoc on their ears and tails. I once watched a possum lick my fence for about 15 minutes. I got close enough to touch it, but not close enough to have any idea of what it was licking. They're certainly a different kind of beast.

Frost bite on ear
Fun facts about the Virginia Opossum:
  • Possums have a super short life span (a 2 year old possum is ancient)
  • They have 50 teeth (dental formula: 5134/4134)
  • Possums don't "play" dead but actually become catatonic. It's an involuntary response, the crescendo of which is the expulsion of a foul smelling liquid from their scent glands. I'd assume that this deters any predator from wanting anything to do with eating the animal (it also starts drooling, will urinate and defecate as well as lower its temperature and heart rate). 
  • They only have awn hair, which explains the raggedy look of their coat (somewhere between the insulative down hairs and the coloration hairs we collectively call the pelt and individually the guard hairs)
  • Only the females have pouches (and they're super small)
  • Possums frequently get frostbite here in Vermont. They're at the northern most extent of their range and have naked tails/ears. Like cardinals, they have moved their range north following urban centers of people.
  • Males have a scent gland on the chest that gives the fur in that spot a gross yellow color
  • They are not winter mammals, and can lose almost half their body weight during the winter
  • Sperm is paired and doesn't swim straight if single
  • They're essentially immune to snake bites
  • They're total scavengers (which might be why I have such an affinity for them) and apparently have a rapacious appetite for calcium so frequently eat road kill skeletons
  • They supposedly even will kill rats, but mostly they scavenger for invertebrates and carrion
  • They have a very very slow metabolism (unlike shrews) and move much slower than most animals their size
Frost bite on tail

Ecological notes: The frostbite they frequently get doesn't matter all that much, nor is their much selective pressure pushing them to adapt to the winter since they live such short live (rarely living more than one full winter). They are continually pushing their range northward. Young possums can hang by their tails, but adults can't.

Where: East Ave

Other notes: Opossum comes from the Algonquian word "opassum" which translates roughly to "white animal". The word was first used in 1608 by Capt. John Smith. His description of "possums" (the 'o' was dropped in writings as early as 1613), is simple and alludes to the oddball-ness of the creature: "An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young."

Other posts with photos of animal feet in them:

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