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Oh! Opossums! (GMHDRNC)

TopicWildlife - Mammals
Summary
See North America’s only native marsupial in this program on the life of the Virginia opossum.

Grade LevelK - 12
Recommended SettingIndoor or outdoor classroom
LocationGovernor Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center, Pine Bluff
Contact
Education Program Coordinator, 870-534-0011
Duration45 minutes - 1 hour
Suggested Number of Participants10 - 30
Objectives
  • Learn the basic life cycle of the opossum.
  • Learn the opposum’s defense mechanisms
Key Terms*

Marsupial

Nocturnal

Opposable

Prehensile

Materials

Live animal

Background

The Virginia opossum (more commonly called the “possum”) is the only marsupial north of the Rio Grande. John Smith recorded the first description of an opossum during his stay in Virginia, likening the animal to a cat in size and behavior.

 

Procedure
  1. Discuss the anatomy and behavior of the opossum.
    • The opossum has a keen sense of smell but poor eyesight. It eats nuts, insects, fruits, berries, mice and sometimes carrion. Since it feeds on carrion, the opossum has a well-developed immune system. This and a lower body temperature than most mammals make the animal less likely to contract rabies than humans.
    • The opossum lives mostly in trees and can climb well because of two features: opposable thumbs on its back legs and its hairless, prehensile tail.
    • The animal defends itself by pretending to be dead or “playing possum.” When frightened, sensory overload puts the animal in a trance, causing it to appear dead so predators will dismiss it. At the same time, the opossum will foam at the mouth and nose and secrete a sticky, foul-smelling, green fluid from its anal gland that sticks to the predator for some time, reminding it not to bother opossums again.
  2. The defining feature of marsupials is their reproduction. The female opossum, like a kangaroo or koala, has a pouch on her stomach for housing newborns, much like a second womb. When the opossum gives birth, the babies are so small that more than 15 will fit on a teaspoon. The mother licks a path for the newborns to crawl up and into her pouch where they will nurse for two months. These young often stay with the mother for up to two years, even after a new litter is born, crawling in and out of the pouch and riding on the mother’s back. 
  3. When available, present the opossum to the class. This can also be done throughout the discussions as a visual aid. If the group is small enough or if time allows, let participants touch the animal.
  4. Answer any questions.
Review
  • What distinguishes marsupials among other mammals?
  • Who discovered the opossum?
  • What adaptations help the opossum climb trees?
Related Documents
Glossary

Marsupial – a pouched mammal that does not have a placenta connecting the embryo with its mother. The young are born undeveloped and, immediately after birth, crawl to the mother's nipples and remain attached while continuing to develop. The female's nipples are covered by a pouch, or marsupium, formed by an abdominal skin fold.

 

Nocturnal – active at night (as opposed to diurnal)

 

Opposable – capable of being placed against one or more of the remaining digits of a hand or foot, such as an opposable thumb

 

Prehensile – quality of an organ that can grasp or hold; an evolutionary adaptation that gives species a great natural advantage by manipulating their environment for feeding, digging and defense