Updated at 3:48 p.m. ET on July 21, 2022
When she makes her nighttime appearance—in a leafy corner of the yard, maybe, or along a power line slung across an alley—you’ll see her eyes first, two bright-greenish orbs, floating side by side in the gloom. Your own eyes will adjust to size up her lurking silhouette: two ratty ears, candy-corn teeth, a loaf of a body, and a spindly tail behind her. She might gape or hiss like she craves human flesh, sending shivers up your spine. At first glance, this lumbering night creature might seem more foe than friend. But look closer and take her in: a harmless opossum, in all her scruffy glory.
While the opossum has become a beloved internet meme—appearing as an ugly-cute comedian or an adorable garbage monster—in real life, she remains misunderstood, provoking fear or disgust when she should inspire wonder. Because the fundamental truth about the opossum is that she is a gentle survivor—a marsupial whose early relatives once waddled across a supercontinent, who tangles with snakes but harbors no ill will toward humans. You may be forgiven for disliking the look of the opossum, but never for disrespecting her.
First, let’s get a few things straight. Opossums do, in fact, play dead when threatened; they do not hang upside down by their tails. Dozens of different opossum species can be found in the Western Hemisphere, but only one lives here in America. This is Didelphis virginiana—given name, Virginia opossum. Possums, sans O, do exist; furrier and slightly more squirrel-like than opossums, they live in Australia and were once thought to be the same as our Virginia opossum. They are not—but they are both marsupials. Experts believe that early relatives of the Virginia opossum waltzed over to Australia way back when the continents were joined, millions of years ago.
Today, the Virginia opossum can be found basically all over North America: in cities and suburbs, fields and forests. One interloping opossum was recently tossed out of a Brooklyn bar. She thrives alongside humans, and she thrives without them, too. In his 2016 essay titled “Everything What’s Wrong of Possums,” the writer Daniel M. Lavery wondered what, exactly, an opossum eats: “IS IT FRUIT? IS IT … NIGHT DIRT? IS IT OTHER RATS?” The answer is yes. The opossum shovels up all of those things like the Dyson of the natural world. She savors carrion, cockroaches, earthworms, and insect exoskeletons. She feasts on small mice, and ticks that attach themselves to her hide. In cities she gobbles down rotten vegetables, bones, and greasy paper from your garbage. She scavenges—she cleans the streets! Opossums “have their own job,” Donna Holmes Parks, a biology professor at the University of Idaho, told me. And for all that hard work, she added, “they deserve to be admired.”
The Virginia opossum alone is known for all sorts of fascinating behaviors. Baby opossums, which are born the size of an ant, somehow manage to travel from the birth canal into their mother’s pouch. Those that survive the journey stay there for months, latching on to the mother’s teat with their tough palates. Grown, these opossums may not hang by their tails—but they do use them to carry around leaves in the winter. They make smacking sounds with their lips to communicate. Sometimes, they shuffle their back feet in a dance that Parks described to me as “a lot like the mashed potato.” Opossums are also immune to most snake venom. They literally eat pit vipers such as rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and copperheads for lunch. “They’re just so astounding!” Mason Fidino, who studies opossums at the Lincoln Park Zoo’s Urban Wildlife Institute, told me. “I’ve got mad respect for them and their little bare toes.” Opossums “get a bum rap as being ugly, overgrown, ratlike things that have no brains,” Steven Austad, a biology professor at the University of Alabama, told me. Their brains are pretty small. But what they lack in brain size they make up for in olfactory power and memory. “If they eat something that’s bad, they remember that better than dogs or cats or pigs,” Austad said.
Such opossum behaviors have become meme-ified in an ecosystem of delightful opossum content. One popular meme shows a shy little opossum refusing to eat a slice of tomato. “I reject tömat,” the caption says simply. In another, an opossum appears to yell at his tail in the grass. This meme is called “He Scream at Own Ass,” and it makes me cackle every time. Every hour of every day since 2018, the Twitter account @PossumEveryHour has posted a photo of an opossum doing something hilarious, including enjoying some yogurt or wearing a witch’s hat. The account has more than half a million followers. “They’re just leading their own life, not bothering other people,” Sam, the 24-year-old who runs the account, told me. Plus, he added, “they’re trash mammals!” Just like us. Perhaps they’re so memeable because their vibe is so easy to relate to. If an opossum could talk, I think she would probably say something like “Ack!” which is also something that I would say. Whenever I encounter one of these patchy-haired consumers, slowly galumphing down the street, my only thought is: I feel ya, sister!
Opossums look like they’d be vicious, with their black eyes and stalactite chompers. (“Your tail is full of thoughts and intentions and your mouth is full of murder,” Lavery wrote.) But this is exactly what opossums want you to think! In reality, they are some of nature’s most vulnerable mammals. They aren’t particularly fast, and they can’t see well, especially during the day. They’re constantly being devoured by bobcats and coyotes, or smashed by cars on the highway. Opossums have no real defense mechanisms, save the power to evacuate their anal glands and fake their own death, which is a neurophysiological response to fear. While I was growing up in rural Iowa, opossum catatonia was a regular evening occurrence for my family: The dogs would bark proudly from the yard, and there, in the grass, would be an opossum, feet splayed and teeth clenched in a frozen grimace. Once the dogs lost interest, the opossum would get up and slink away.
This humble creature simply has no interest in violence toward humankind. Researchers who want to observe an opossum up close merely grab it by the scruff of its neck, or lift it up by the tail. Mostly, it will just hang there, quiet and concerned. Austad has handled hundreds of opossums for various research projects, catching them in live traps and affixing collars to their fuzzy necks. “I’ve never been bitten by an opossum!” he told me happily. But diseases! you might argue. Nice try, I’d reply. Opossums can carry parasites but rarely contract rabies. A raccoon that wanders too close is something to worry about. An opossum? Not so much.
Yet the life of an opossum can be very sad. She is, in some ways, the Little Match Girl of the mammalian world. Opossums do not hibernate, so when the weather is cold, they get cold too. Their little bare toes and ears are prone to frostbite; you’ll occasionally find opossums missing fingers or tails or chunks of ears. Even if all goes well for the Virginia opossum—no road accidents, no coyote attacks—she never lives very long. “The oldest individual recorded is 36 months” in the wild, Alfred Gardner, a Virginia-based mammalogist and opossum expert, told me. “They’re born one year, they breed the next, and then they die.”
Still, as a species, these adaptable generalists are determined to carry on. A century ago, opossums were most commonly found between Central America and Maryland. But their comfortable range now extends as far north as Ontario. That’s partly because, like so many species, climate change has pushed them north in search of cooler temps. But unlike many other animals, opossums have become experts at navigating a world built by human beings.
A few years ago, an opossum moved into Gardner’s backyard. He left food for her at night, and attached a ramp to an old rabbit hutch so she could have some shelter if she wanted. During the day, the opossum would sit in the hutch or in a tall pile of lumber and watch Gardner quietly as he worked in the garden. For a year, the two were silent companions. Until suddenly, one day, the opossum disappeared. That’s just how opossums work, Gardner said. “They’re not going to dig holes or burrow under your garage or porch,” he said. “They’re not going to give you any diseases.” Eventually, and without any fanfare, they will simply die or move along.
The next time you spot an opossum in your yard or shuffling down the street, pause to admire her, just for a moment. Her fur might be matted, and her tiny razor teeth might glisten menacingly. But this marsupial has places to be and pests to devour. For her, life is short—too short for tömat—and like all of us, she’s doing her best to survive.
*An earlier version of this article misidentified where opossums live.