A Strange, Wondrous Beast of Our Backyards

An introduction to the Virginia opossum, a North American native

12-01-2002 // T. Edward Nickens

IN 1492, VICENTE YÁÑEZ PINZÓN, commander of Christopher Columbus' ship Niña, stumbled across a fantastic creature in Brazil. The front of this "Monster," he wrote, resembled a fox, "the hinder a Monkey, the feet were like a Mans, with Ears like an Owl; under whose Belly hung a great Bag, in which it carry'd the Young . . . ." Pinzón captured the specimen and delivered it alive to King Ferdinand of Spain.

For the next 300 years, this animal shocked and fascinated Europeans. Garish drawings of it appeared on the earliest maps of the Americas. It was captured and frequently shown in England to an amazed public. When the explorer John Lawson traveled through what is now North and South Carolina in 1700-1701, what most impressed him was Pinzón's "monster." This, he wrote, "is the Wonder of all the Land-Animals."

I, too, have seen this wondrous creature. In fact, I saw one just a few nights ago curled inside my garbage can, munching coffee grounds and banana peels: a bundle of teeth, slobber and salt-and-pepper fur that we call the Virginia opossum.

With its pink snout, scaly tail, disheveled pelage (every day is a bad hair day for Didelphys virginiana) and habit of pilfering trash, the lowly opossum gets little respect today. But this marsupial once was an icon of the New World, a symbol of the colonies' possibility for wealth and natural wonder. Dissected and discussed by Europe's leading scientists, it served as a bridge between medieval and Enlightenment science.

There are more than 70 species of opossum in the Western Hemisphere, but only one in North America. That creature, the Virginia opossum, ranges across much of the eastern United States, as well as California. With 50 teeth and an appetite for nearly anything organic, the opossum has become one of the most common backyard animals. And where there is one, there is likely a crowd. The female opossum can breed by the age of six or eight months and can produce two broods a season, with each one numbering a half-dozen or so.

For Europeans exploring the New World, the opossum was only one of many novel creatures, such as the alligator, rattlesnake, armadillo and wild turkey. Few, however, fired the European imagination as much as the opossum. "Early on," according to Susan Scott Parrish, a scholar of colonial natural history at the University of Michigan, "the opossum was proof of the New World's propensity to produce strange and horrible beasts."

The opossum looked like an assemblage of spare parts from disparate sources. And then there was the unique reproductive system of these creatures, the first marsupials known to Europeans. Female opossums have two uteruses and a fur-lined belly pouch in which embryonic young suckle until ambulatory. And males, with their forked penises, were hardly run-of-the-mill mammals either.

The first known appearance of an opossum image in Europe is on a 1516 woodcut by Martin Waldseemüller, the German cartographer who first applied Amerigo Vespucci's name to a map of the New World. Waldseemüller's outsized opossum has its back turned to a pair of cannibals standing under a tree from which human body parts hang like fruit.

Early depictions of the opossum hinted at the monstrosity that many Europeans expected to reside on unknown continents. In Étienne Delaune's 1575 engraving America, the opossum is a fearsome creature, with sharp claws and a fang-baring infant in her pouch. Nearly a century later, the London mapmaker John Ogilby illustrated the moment when Pinzón captured his opossum. The Spaniard approaches, lariat in hand, backed up by musket-toting sailors, as a bear-sized mother opossum snarls and two babies skulk away.

These representations of the creature were rooted in the fear and loathing of the Dark Ages, but that was all about to change. While forays to the Atlantic Coast were bringing to Europe new forms of animal and plant life, the nature of science itself was being transformed. Comparative anatomy and the scientific method, with their emphasis on the observed, replaced the conjurations of medieval scholars. "Scientists and naturalists became less interested in the strange and bizarre," explains Parrish, "and started thinking of all creatures as being a part of God's wonderful, providential design."

The turning point in the opossum's public-relations makeover came in 1698, when Royal Society fellow Edward Tyson put together a 60-page dissertation on the anatomy of a female opossum collected in Virginia. No "Chimerical Monster" was the opossum, Tyson wrote. "I think 'tis only our Ignorance makes the Admiration, and that Admiration forms the Monster; for Nature, in her regular Actings, produces no such Species of Animals."

For Tyson, the opossum's human-hand-like hind feet were not indicators of evil genesis, but simply "advantageous . . . to its way of living, and getting its Food." The pouch could only be a sign of the great maternal qualities of the opossum. If this otherwise disagreeable animal was blessed with such fruitfulness, how could the New World that spawned it be any less fertile?

Interest in the marsupial continued into the post-colonial era. "Thomas Jefferson and others argued that Americans could inherit the mantle of empire because we were naturally entitled to it by our continent's promise, majesty and fecundity," says Parrish. "And because the opossum is so fertile, and is such a good mother, the idea was that the animal was proof that America can support and take care of immigrants. It was the beginning of the idea of America as a place of refuge."

Of course, no one is suggesting that the Statue of Liberty be replaced by a 151-foot-tall opossum. And as most folks who live in opossum country are aware, the species has lost much of its iconic stature during the past few centuries. After all, the animal's more grotesque attributes disgusted even its fans. "Their Flesh is very white, and well tasted;" Lawson wrote, "but their ugly Tails put me out of Conceit with that Fare."

Although it was esteemed by scientists, common folk knew the opossum as an egg thief and a nuisance. Eventually, these negative attributes conspired against the creature. It was, after all, says Parrish, "a very smelly animal, and by the late eighteenth century the idea of playing possum had come up as a comical association, or one of duplicity."

So much, then, for dollar bills bearing the likeness of a buff opossum. But the fact remains that the lowly mammal was one of the most assiduously studied and marveled at creatures of the New World, and for early scientists and others searching for evidence of the Western Hemisphere's Edenic qualities, the opossum proved emblematic.

That's something worth remembering the next time I unceremoniously dump a hissing opossum out of the garbage can. After all, the opossum hasn't changed since the days when European explorers captured it and proudly sent it to their kings. We've just lost a bit of our wonder.

North Carolina journalist T. Edward Nickens wrote about "climate change and fish" in the National Wildife Magazine June/July 2003 issue.

Finding Beauty in the Beast

George H. Harrison

There was a scratching noise outside, down below a line of ice on the window that blocked my view. It was Christmas Day, and there were six inches of snow on the ground. Whatever was scratching, I thought, was a cold-weather survivor.

Down on my knees, I peered over the ice line into the face of an opossum (see photograph), America’s only marsupial. Its beady black eyes stared at me; the mouth drooled, and its lips were drawn back in sardonic grin that revealed many of it 50 needle-sharp teeth.

National Wildlife Magazine Image - Animal

Photo: © GEORGE H. HARRISON

We scrutinized one another for a moment, both recovering from the first startling awareness of the other. Then the long-haired animal continued to scarf up birdseed that had blown out of the feeders and up against the base of the window.

The cold wind blowing against its matted hair and naked feet seemed to say that this animal was out of its element. A southerner by origin, opossums have extended their range well into the northern United States, including the area of Wisconsin where I live. But pioneering into cold habitat has come at a price. I noticed that this opossum outside my window had lost some toes and part of its tail, probably to frost bite. Yet it was a survivor, and apparently a few less toes didn’t seem to make this slow mover move any slower.

The opossum, formerly know as the Virginia opossum, is one of a kind among North American mammals. Arguably the ugliest and perhaps slowest in movement, some people have also called it a dim-witted creature that often smells bad. And if one assumes that brain size is a measure of intelligence, the opossum could emerge at the bottom of the I.Q. range for an animal with its skull size. Vernon Bailey, a former naturalist with the U.S. Biological Survey, decided to measure the brain capacity of a number of common animals by filling the brain pans with beans. The number of beans necessary to fill a ’possum’s brain chamber was 21. In comparison, Bailey recorded the following number of beans for other animals: skunk, 35 beans; porcupine, 70; raccoon, 150; red fox 198.

Other scientists, however, have found evidence that opossums do not deserve the "dim-witted" label. Researcher William James of the University of Georgia, for instance, discovered that opossums were better at remembering where food was hidden in a complicated maze than were dogs, cats, rabbits or turtles. In fact, only humans were clearly superior to them in such studies. Cornell University researchers, meanwhile, discovered that opossums learned quickly how to distinguish between toxic and edible mushrooms, even though the plants used in the study were nearly identical in appearance.

Intelligent or not, opossums clearly are adaptable, which is why they have survived for more than 50 million years, far outliving such creatures as the saber-toothed tiger. During this time, their instinctive behavior has helped them cope with adversity. For example, when attacked by a predator, opossums often roll over and play dead, putting themselves into a stupor, rather than try to outrun their enemies. "Playing ’possum" has worked well against aggressive predators, but unfortunately not so well against oncoming cars.

The opossum’s reproduction system may be its true trump card for survival. Though courtship among opossums is nearly nonexistent, the result of a pairing is incredible. After only 12-1/2 days, the shortest gestation of any North American mammal, the female bears a litter of about 16 youngsters--hairless, pink grubs so small that all 16 could fit easily into a teaspoon. But for these youngsters, being born is easy compared to the life and death journey from the mother’s womb to the pouch on her belly.

Blind and with only two working legs, and no help whatsoever from the mother, a newborn opossum begins its toughest struggle for survival. Entirely on its own, the youngster must laboriously drag itself up to and into the marsupium three inches away. Some do not make it, and some of those that do complete the journey cannot find a nipple inside, and they also perish. Though 16 to 18 are born, the average number of young opossums raised in the pouch is only nine. But with two litters a year, there are plenty of opossums around to saunter across backyards, crawl into garbage cans--and lick up fallen birdseed on cold winter days.

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