Friday, October 16, 2009

An Alive Opossum!


Yesterday evening while trundling down a trail at the Celery Fields, just after having three gorgeous Sandhill Cranes fly over me not 20 meters high, I came on to an Opossum stumbling down the grassy trail toward me. On seeing me the Opossum darted for nearby thicker vegetation, thereby ensuring that it was possibly going to live an hour longer - maybe more if it was really lucky!

So why is it that the simple observation of the only marsupial in North America worthy of a note on my blog?

As this range map

indicates, during my adult life, I have lived in the range of the Opossum all but the six years I lived in North Dakota. In all of those years and all of the traveling I did and poking around in forests that I did, and looking in other habitats that I did, I have not seen many alive Opossums. In fact, yesterday's animal at the Celery Fields was only the 14th living Opossum I have seen anywhere in my nearly 58 years!

Opossums appear to live dead along the side of highways more than any animal I know other than, maybe, Armadillos. And living in the south I have seen a zillion dead Opossums. There are two carcasses that I pedal by daily on my bicycle ride in Sarasota for instance. But to see a live one is a rarity.

When I lived on Oak Street in Grand Island Nebraska I had an Opossum there who for some reason used to like to run around on the roof of my garage. I could lay in bed at night and listen to it milling around on the roof. Eventually I started putting iceberg lettuce on the garage roof to attract the critter so I could watch him and maybe learn a bit about them. Then one night while I was watching the Opossum eat lettuce on my roof a Great Horned Owl stealthily flew in and snatched the Opossum and flew off with him, quickly converting him into a late evening dinner.

Their propensity for turning up dead was best illustrated by a graduate student at the University of Georgia who was trying to do her thesis research on Opossums while I was stationed on that campus. She eventually gave up trying to put radio transmitters on them and learn about their movements when 80 percent of her radio-tagged animals turned up dead from collisions with vehicles within 10 days of being tagged.

So, for me, it was a big freaking deal getting to see this alive Opossum. It was funny seeing it because the first thing I remembered when I identified the critter was John Hudson explaining in Mammalogy 408 nearly 40 years ago the dental formula of Didelphis virginianus and telling us that they have 52 teeth as opposed to our 32. Don't ask why I remembered that trivial bit of worthless information.

If you want to learn more about the biology of North America's only marsupial you can do so at this link.

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