Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 27, 2007

Interview with a Dead ‘Possum

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:29 pm

 Finding an opossum dead in the middle of the road is not an unusual thing. Such a sight is an expected part of roadside décor, though less frequent during the winter. ‘Possums den up during severe winter spells but they eventually emerge to forage for food as soon as the weather breaks.  It is as if they are called by destiny to carry on their legendary one sided battles with our automobiles.  In possum society it is apparently not enough to just play dead.

  I found one of these vanquished road warriors the other day while Christmas shopping. For me, of course, this was a gift from heaven – or at least Purgatory.  The freshly killed specimen was perfect in every aspect and begged to be picked up. Keep in mind that roadkills don’t beckon everyone equally, but I felt compelled to pass this gift on to you. 

  I am well aware that presenting a dead possum as a wrapped present may be construed by the receiver as a weaker version of the old horse’s head in your bed “offer you can’t refuse” kind of thing.  You can refuse my offer to take a closer look at this critter, but I implore you to indulge me.  It’s not every day that you get a chance to interview North America’s only marsupial.

  By interview, of course, I mean a forensic examination to draw out some telling details.  Perhaps the two most talkative details on any opossum are found by looking at the tail and ears. This individual bore the distinctive marks of an animal ill-suited to northern climes. Most Michigan possums have frost-bitten ears and/or tails.  The delicate exposed tissues on these features are subject to freezing. This unfortunate critter had a severely frost damaged tail where the end tail vertebrae bone was actually exposed and the tender terminal flesh was discolored.   Since the wound was healed over, it was not a result of the accident that sent it to the great garbage can in heaven.

  Opossums are southern creatures that have expanded their range northward over recent time. They do not appear locally in the prehistoric archaeological record. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder of Detroit in 1701, made first mention of the creature as a resident of S.E. Michigan during his brief tenure here, although the first actual Monroe county record was made in 1850. By the early 1900’s, possums were popping up throughout Lower Michigan.  They even ventured into the ‘da U.P. by the 1950’s, eh! The problem is that they have yet to cover their tails and ears with fur and often pay the price.

  Oddly enough, this particular roadkill had perfect ears showing no signs of frostbite what-so-ever. These rodent-like appendages prompted the aforementioned Mr. Cadillac to write about “large wood rats which are as large as rabbits; most of them are grey but there are some seen which are as white as snow.”  His further explanation that the female rat has “a pouch under her belly which opens and shuts as she requires…” makes it clear he was definitely talking ‘possum.   

  As a marsupial, opossum females are equipped with “pouches” with which to carry their “joeys.” Take a look here and you can clearly see the pouch on this female specimen, but you’ll notice that it is not a pouch in the true sense of the word. This pouch opens more like one of those plastic change purses where the opening is in the center. Our female was several months away from mating season, so her pouch folds were not swollen. During the breeding season there would also be 13 nipples in evidence on the pink hairless belly skin, but these are barely visible during the winter.

    I’m glad you’ve stuck with me so far, because there are a few more things I’d like to point out. Take a look here, for instance, and examine the bright pink nose.  Early naturalists used to think that opossum females would mate through their nostrils and then sneeze their young into the pouch. This belief started when those same naturalists looked at the forked nature of the…well, shall we say, the “male organ” and literally put two and two together.  They were wrong, by the way. Opossums do “it” like every other mammal on earth, so you can look at this nose picture without guilt or shame.

  Last and certainly not least, the hind feet of the opossum are simply incredible.  They have thumbs on their back feet that give them the appearance of monkey paws (see here and here).  These clawless foot thumbs point inward and assist them in climbing. Close examination reveals that they are startlingly like our human hands. Draw your eyes closer to inspect the foot pad and you’ll see they possess one more human-like trait – they have unique fingerprint ridges on their thumbs and palms.

   So, it’s O.K. to look a gift ‘possum in the mouth and everywhere else because dead ‘possums do tell tales.

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