Last week I found a large rat-like creature furtively sneaking through my back yard. AHA! a new mammal species for my Santa Rosa yard list. (I count all the wild things I find). It was a Virginia opossum. Not a native California animal, possums were allegedly brought from the eastern US in 1910 and released in San Jose. For what purpose I have no idea, unless it was nostalgia for that possum stew Granny used to make in the hills of Kentucky. These distant relatives of the Kangaroo like the Bay area and have been pioneering their way into new territory at an amazing rate.
Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) is credited with first writing about these critters. An Opassom hath a 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 she lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh. The native Algonquian word was probably “pasum and was preceded by a grunt -something like ug-pasum. It meant, “white beast”.
The bottom line of survival is reproduction and possums have that down pat. With á life span of only two years they must reproduce constantly and that is precisely what they do –
sometimes raising two or three broods á year. Consider that just twelve days and eighteen hours after mating `possum babies are born! An entire litter could fit inside á teaspoon!
The newborns are basically a mouth and two forelimbs that’s it. Immediately after birth they must crawl three inches to the mother’s pouch. That’s the equivalent of á human infant scaling á
thirteen foot hairy wall. After attaching to one of thirteen nipples they suckle for 60 days until they are big enough to make it on their own. They stay with mom a while hanging on her but eventually wandering off to forage on their own.
Anything is considered food until proven otherwise – dead animals, insects, rotten apples, and compost and cat food. These habits in addition to its appearance make possums an object of derision. But what an amazing animal, it has survived and thrived alongside that other notoriously successful pioneer – Homo sapiens.
This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.