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Marsupials

Virginia Opossums Breeding

2-18-19 opossum 025If you see a Virginia Opossum in your travels, it could well be on the hunt for a mate at this time of year. It’s even possible you may hear one if you are close enough and the timing is right, as male opossums attract females by making clicking sounds with their mouth.

The breeding practices of this marsupial are unusual, to say the least. The male opossum has a bifurcated (two-pronged) penis (see photo inset), and the female has two vaginas. Not only is their reproductive anatomy somewhat unusual, but the behavior of their sperm is as well. During maturation, sperm pair up inside the male reproductive tract and remain paired after entering the female. Just prior to fertilization the sperm pair separate (into two spermatozoa). This phenomenon occurs only in American marsupials, and not Australian. No definitive explanation exists for this, but perhaps paired sperm increase motility in the female reproductive tract.

(NB: Having an opossum on your land is a real asset – according to biologist Richard Ostfeld, one opossum can kill and eat some 5,000 ticks in a single season. Opossums are said to destroy roughly 90 percent of all the ticks they encounter.)

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An Opossum’s Opposable Thumbs

11-22-16-opossum-hind-foot3-untitled-1Virginia opossums have expanded their range into northern New England, but are still not commonly seen, except, perhaps, lying on roads where they met their demise. There is much to admire about opossums: they are the only North American marsupial, they have more teeth than any other North American land mammal (50) and they possess a prehensile tail and opposable thumbs (both of which are rarities among non-primates).

The recent discovery of a road-killed opossum provided me with an opportunity to examine its feet at close range. An opossum’s front feet have five toes, each bearing a nail. Their hind feet also have five toes, but only four of them have nails. The fifth toe, or “thumb,” lacks a nail and is opposable, allowing opossums to grasp branches and to climb. If you see their tracks, the hind foot is easily discernable from the front due to the fact that the thumb is at a 90-degree angle to the other toes.

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Opossums Scrounging

3-19-14 opossum2  021Within the last century the Virginia Opossum has extended its range northeastward and now occurs sporadically throughout most of New England. Its adaptability to a great variety of habitats and its omnivorous diet (is there anything an opossum won’t eat?) have enabled this marsupial to live in much colder climates than it initially inhabited. As long as food can be found,the opossum’s greatest challenge is dealing with New England’s cold winters. Lacking much hair, the ears and tail of an opossum often suffer from frostbite, turning black at the edges (ears) and tip (tail). Look for signs of this nocturnal scavenger under bird feeders – in the winter it can even be seen foraging in the daylight, as the opossum in this photograph was earlier this week. (Thanks to Dotty Cummings for photo op.)

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