The name "opossum" is derived from an Algonquian Indian
word "apasum", meaning white animal. While there are over 65 species of
opossums, only one, the Didelphis virginiana, more commonly known as the Virginia
opossum, is native to North America. Didelphis means double womb and refers to the
pouch as a secondary place of development for the infant opossums. Virginiana
refers to the state of Virginia where the opossum was first observed by early English
colonists. However, opossums today can be found throughout most of the United States and
portions of Canada and Mexico.
The opossum has many interesting features. It has 50 teeth, more
than any North American land mammal. Its hairless tail is prehensile and is used for
grasping branches, balancing and carrying nesting material. The opossum does not hang
upside down by the tail, a common misconception. The opossum also has opposable thumbs on
its hind feet for holding onto branches.
Whether rural, residential or in the wilderness, opossums are a
benefit to any area they inhabit. Their diet includes all types of bugs and insects
including cockroaches, crickets and beetles. They love snails. They also eat mice and
rats. The nocturnal opossum is attracted to our neighborhoods by the availability of
water, pet food left out at night and overripe, rotting fruit that has fallen from trees.
The opossum in turn helps keep our neighborhoods clean and free of unwanted, harmful
garden pests and rodents, which may carry diseases. The opossum has earned the title of
"Nature's Little Sanitation Engineer."