Marsupials are animals that raise and nourish their young in an abdominal pouch before they get big enough to face life on their own. In contrast, other mammals have placentas that nourish the young while still in the womb.
The term "marsupial" typically conjures up images of the land down under, and for good reason – more than 200 marsupial species, such as wombats, wallabies, kangaroos, and koalas, are prevalent on the Australian continent and on nearby islands. It's less commonly known that South America is home to 90 marsupial species.
Only one native marsupial, however, can be found in the United States. The Virginia opossum (or just "possum") has adapted especially well to urban areas, where it can frequently be found chowing down on discarded food from overturned trash cans, or pet kibble left out for dogs. Although this scavenging behavior can annoy people, we have reason to be grateful to opossums – they also voraciously gobble up ticks, which slows the spread of Lyme disease.
More about opossums:
- The Virginia opossum is one of the oldest surviving mammals on the planet, having existed for about 65 million years.
- Opossums are one of the few mammals in the U.S. with prehensile tails, which means they can grasp objects with their tails, a skill that helps them during nest building or when they’re climbing trees.
- These nocturnal animals play dead when faced with danger. A threatened opossum goes into a catatonic-like state, drooling and emitting a foul substance from its anal glands – a behavior that helps keep predators at bay.