Exploring The Last Green Valley: Opossum is only marsupial found in Connecticut


Exploring The Last Green Valley: Opossum is only marsupial found in Connecticut

Exploring The Last Green Valley: Opossum is only marsupial found in Connecticut

For the past few weeks my wife has been leaving food out for a beautiful stray cat. We hope to entice the animal with food so as to eventually tame him and include him in our family of pets.

After all, what’s one more cat when you already have two, as well as two dogs and three horses?

The other night we heard a bump on the porch and assumed the stray had stopped by for his evening meal. Julie opened the door and let out a scream, stamped her feet and slammed the door in hasty retreat.

Instead of feeding her stray cat, she was feeding one of earth’s oldest surviving mammals, one that has been around since the age of dinosaurs. The animal looked up with a silly grin on his pointy face and continued to chow down on Little Friskies.

Our neighborhood opossum had wandered over for a meal and only our barking dogs finally convinced it to leave.

I have seen opossums on many occasions. Many summer evenings I find them in the road blinking into my headlights.

Unfortunately, they are more often seen as roadkill.

Our nighttime visitor got me thinking about these amazing creatures so I looked around for more information.

My first stop when researching flora and fauna in our region is the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s website. Here is what the DEEP opossum fact sheet provided:

– The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginianus) is the only member of the Order Marsupialia (pouched animals) found in Connecticut and north of Mexico. They were not found in our region until after 1900 when they expanded their range from southeastern United States to the Northeast. They are now found throughout New England.

– The opossum measures between 15 and 20 inches long and is between 4 and 12 pounds. They have a long, scaly and almost hairless tail of 9 to 20 inches long. The tail is prehensile, helps stabilize the animal when climbing, and is adapted for grasping and wrapping around things, but not for hanging for long periods of time.

– Adapted to live wherever food, water and shelter exist, they will inhabit woodland areas along streams, ponds, lakes, swamps and marshes. Farmland and woodlots are preferred over extensive forested areas. They are also commonly found in residential areas.

– The opossum is a scavenger and omnivore and usually feeds at night. With a keen sense of smell they will locate insects, worms, carrion, reptiles, amphibians, birds and bird eggs, berries, fruit and small mammals. They also will eat garbage and pet food, and can be found rummaging through compost piles.

– In Connecticut, opossums usually begin breeding in early March. Their gestation period is only 13 days and they will produce one to two litters a year. The average litter size is nine and the young are very tiny, pink and about the size of a bumble bee. They crawl into the female’s pouch, attach themselves to a nipple, and remain “locked” for approximately 60 days. After 80 days the young are weaned, leave the pouch and typically can be seen riding on the female’s back. At 100 days they are independent. A second litter is usually born within two weeks of the first being weaned.

– When threatened, the opossum will hiss, growl and crouch. They usually avoid confrontation and retreat to a tree, brush pile or other cover. They are known to also feign death (where the term “playing possum” comes from). If that doesn’t deter a possible predator, the opossum will release a foul-smelling, greenish substance from a gland beneath its tail. The survival technique of total surrender as opposed to fighting is unique among mammals, and seems to have worked relatively well for opossums.

One of the reasons my wife was so upset about the opossum on our porch is because we have horses. Opossums can transmit a serious disease to horses through fecal contamination of feed and water. The disease is called Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis and is caused by a protozoal parasite whose eggs are shed in opossum feces. Infected horses show various signs of illness including symptoms of central nervous system disease. Needless to say, we don’t put pet food out any more and hope the opossum doesn’t return.

Despite its relatively ugly appearance, unsightly habit of eating garbage and potential disease-transmitting concerns for horse owners, we should still appreciate this unique marsupial. It has survived for millions of years and has adapted well to life here in New England.

We live in a beautiful region with so much flora and fauna to understand and appreciate. I hope you’ll join me in caring for, enjoying and passing on all we have here in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.


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