Virginia Opossums have extended their range far enough north that even in parts of northern New England they are present and remain active year-round. Opossum tracks in the snow provide an opportunity to observe the unusual toe structure of these marsupials.
Opossums have five toes on all four feet. The toes on their front feet can spread wide apart, often resulting in a star-shaped track. The inside toe of their hind foot, or “thumb,” is opposable, has no nail, and often points in the opposite direction of the other four toes. (Thanks to Connie Day for opossum track photo op.)
If 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.)
When your quest is to find out as much as you can about the identity, activity, diet and territory of your four-footed neighbors, it is logical to make the most of all your senses. Tracks can be seen, scrapings and bite marks on a tree can be felt and yes, one’s sense of smell can enhance any tracking expedition. Just as the tracks and scat of different species of animals have distinctive characteristics, so does the urine of different animals. Scent marking, including urination, is a behaviour used by animals to identify their territory, and therefore a highly visible sign in winter.
At this time of year, foxes are breeding, and without even putting your nose near where a fox has marked his territory with urine, you can detect its skunk-like odor as you pass by. If you’re so inclined (and I realize many readers may not be) you can heighten your sensory experience as well as your identification prowess by sampling the smell of other animals’ liquid waste. White-tailed deer urine has a pungent, piney smell, quite pleasing to this naturalist’s olfactory receptors. You can detect a porcupine den from a considerable distance by the pungent, very distinctive but hard to describe odor of its urine (which spills out onto and coats the bark of a tree den, thereby advertising the porcupine’s presence). Coyote urine smells very much like a domestic dog’s, and members of the weasel family often have musky-smelling urine, though a recently-sniffed fisher marking had very little scent.
Needless to say, it’s a lot easier to discover and sample urine when there’s snow on the ground and it is more evident. Virginia opossums, snowshoe hares, red and gray squirrels, eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, fishers, mink and striped skunks are all in or entering their breeding seasons, when scent marking is more frequent. Snow is currently on the ground, at least in northern New England. It’s prime time for olfactory activity, if you’re game. (Photo: stump marked by a red fox)
Virginia 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.