Wednesday, 11 March 2009

An opossum's tail

Opossums are a group of about 90 different species occurring only in the western hemisphere, occurring from southern South America right up to Canada. The most famous species is Didelphis virginiana, the Virginia opossum. It looks vaguely like, and is usually portrayed as being, a giant rat with a fluffy coat, when actually it is a marsupial that happens to benefit from human habitation as it uses houses for shelter and food (scavenging for scraps) in the same way that rats do. I guess it’s partly hairless tail doesn’t help its cause...

Possums are a group of about 65 different species occurring in Australia, Sulawesi and New Guinea. The most commonly encountered species is Trichosurus vulpecula, the common brush-tailed possum. At a maximum of 4.5kg, it is not far off the above species in size, but it’s bushy tail, shorter muzzle and darker colouration make it easy to tell apart. It too likes people’s houses for the same reasons, and usually it causes an annoyance for people who have to sleep with them running over the roof every night.
Now, although there is only one letter different between “possum” and “opossum”, apparently this causes a problem for some people. Google for instance, throes up dozens of photos of both possums and opossums when you google “possums”, mainly of D. virginiana. Why on earth does this species have the common name of “possum”, when it is nothing of the sort?

Unlike other common name confusions, which are usually due to visual similarities between species, D. virginiana looks very little like a, for instance, T. vulpecula. It must then be pure and simple laziness which causes people to mix the two names up. Why bother to say “opossum” when you can say the easier “possum”? Waste of time innit? Whose gonna care ‘bout one letta?


The catalyst for this short rant is a video ( Although very funny, and the vocals say “possum”, they cock it up by depicting a very rat-like D. virginiana with the long muzzle and nearly hairless tail. Oddly enough, the idea that possum attacks are the “number one reason for a day off” is, according to an Australian friend, complete rubbish, mainly because they only attack people in extreme circumstances. But how hard would it have been to google “possum”, looked in Wikipedia or whatever site first comes up, and found a representative possum from Australia?
Again, why bother? What’s Joe Public going to care? Well, if I had my way, they damn well would. I bet even 8yr old me could have told you the difference between possums and opossums. Why not everyone else?

1 comment:

  1. I just want to know how to, hopefully quickly, tell the difference in an opossum and a rat. If opossum leave the nest fairly young, then they will be about rat size I guess so that can be confusing. However, have one floating in the pool right now. Usually we just find a bird once a year and a couple of voles maybe and a frog or two. This is a new thing and I would like to know if it's a rat, which is what I would assume but we have lots of opossum in Tennessee. Any help? Pat in Memphis