Charlotte Begley explores an unlikely avenue of medical researchWritten by Charlotte Begley on 2nd April 2019
Creature Feature: A Tale of Two Possums
Editor-in-Chief Erin Santillo discusses the two varieties of possum
Both the North American possum (Didelphis virginiana) and the Australasian possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) are solitary, nocturnal marsupials around the size of domestic cats. Also semi-arboreal with prehensile tails, both spend much of their time in trees, so it is unusual to hear that they are not in fact the same animal at all.
In North America, possums – also called opossums – are typically grey and white in colour, with long and hairless tails, such as the omnivorous Virginia Possum. On their own in the order Didelphimorphia, they have adapted to an urban habitat and are often seen rummaging through bins and stealing pet food opportunistically.
They have also developed an infamous response to high-stress situations; involuntarily playing dead and emitting a putrid anal fluid to deter predators. Yet, despite being highly immune to snake venom and most diseases, they only enjoy a two year life span in the wild.
Possums in Australasia, meanwhile, have silver, brown, black, or cream coats and bushy tails – characterised typically by the Common Brushtail Possum. Traditionally killed for their fur, they are now protected and live in the wild for up to 13 years on a primarily folivorous diet of eucalyptus leaves. However, like their American namesakes, possums have become accustomed to urban environments in Australasia by raiding kitchens at night.
Possums here exist in the order Diprotodontia, so are closely related to kangaroos and koalas. Unlike their cousins, however, they are known to secrete an iconic red stain from their chests to mark their territory.
So, the next time you consider these humble creatures, remember that it really is a tale of two possums.