Didelphis marsupialissouthern opossum

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Geographic Range

Common opossums (Didelphis marsupialis) are found throughout much of Central and South America. The range of this species is limited by high elevations and dry environments. These animals are found native to the following countries: Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Columbia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad, Tobago and Venezuela. In recent history, these animals have also been introduced to a variety of islands. (Brito, et al., 2008; Cerqueira and Tribe, 2008)

Habitat

Common opossums are found in a variety of habitats throughout Central and South America. These animals are considered habitat generalists and are even tolerant of anthropogenically altered environments. They are not found in areas of exceptionally high elevation or extremely dry habitats, although they are found in montane environments in Costa Rica and may survive in areas with a wide range of precipitation. It has been suggested that common opossums may be the most tolerant and adaptable Neotropical mammal. Their preferred habitats include tropical, subtropical, old growth, evergreen and gallery forests in lowland regions below about 2,000 meters on average. These animals also frequent urban environments such as near human dwellings and garbage dumps, as well as agricultural lands including pastures and cacao, coffee and citrus plantations. Common opossums may be found on the ground or in large trees, although they are more terrestrial than some members of their genus. (Adler, et al., 2012; Brito, et al., 2008; Cerqueira and Tribe, 2008; Estrada, et al., 1994; Medellin, 1994; Reid, 2009; Tyndale-Biscoe, 1973)

  • Range elevation
    2,000 (high) m
    ft

Physical Description

Common opossums are robust marsupials. The fur on their body is thick with long guard hairs, leading these animals to appear somewhat disheveled. Their dorsal pelage is often dark, typically blackish or grayish, but in rare instances they may appear whitish. In comparison, their ventral fur is yellow or cream. These animals have primarily whitish fur on their faces and a dark stripe extending to the crown of their heads, with a black ring around both eyes. Their ears are large and all black. Common opossums have sharp claws, long whiskers and a primarily naked prehensile tail that is slightly longer than their body. These animals are sexually dimorphic; males trapped in French Guiana averaged 1.2 kg, whereas females averaged 1.03 kg. These values may be low; other sources suggest that their body weights range between 4 to 6 kg. In general, adult males have longer canines than adult females. Common opossums typically have a total body length of 371 mm (ranging from 265 to 430 mm), including a tail length of 395 mm. (Castillo-Flores and Calvo-Irabien, 2003; Reid, 2009; Richard-Hansen, et al., 1999; Shripat, 2011; Tyndale-Biscoe and Renfree, 1987)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Average mass
    1530 g
    53.92 oz
    AnAge
  • Range length
    265 to 430 mm
    10.43 to 16.93 in
  • Average length
    371 mm
    14.61 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    3.31 W
    AnAge

Reproduction

Common opossums show a polygynous mating system, in which males compete for reproductive females. These animals are almost exclusively solitary, but come together seasonally for breeding. Didelphids do not exhibit courtship rituals and do not pair bond. Females experience a 25 to 32 day estrous cycle. When resources are limited or unavailable these animals may choose not to mate. (Fernandes, et al., 2010; Julien-Laferriere and Atramentowicz, 1990; O'Connell, 2006; Shripat, 2011; Sunquist, et al., 1987)

Breeding seasons and the number of annual litters varies based on latitude. Breeding seasons can vary from one long season from January to September or several shorter seasons annually. These seasons may be correlated with seasonal precipitation. Female common opossums begin breeding when they are 6 to 7 months old. Gestation typically lasts 13 to 15 days, after which 2 to 20 altricial young are born, interestingly; animals living closer to the equator tend to have smaller litters. At birth, their young are tiny; they are usually about 1 cm long and weigh about 0.13 grams. Although they are extremely under-developed, newborn common opossums have well-developed claws on their front legs that help them climb to their mother’s pouch. Once inside the pouch, their young remain attached to the mammae for about 50 days. Young are weaned and independent when they are 90 to 125 days old, often when fruit is plentiful. (Brito, et al., 2008; Cabello, 2006; Gustavo, et al., 1990; Julien-Laferriere and Atramentowicz, 1990; O'Connell, 2006; Shripat, 2011; Tyndale-Biscoe and Mackenzie, 1976; Tyndale-Biscoe and Renfree, 1987; Tyndale-Biscoe, 1973; Tyndale-Biscoe, 2005)

  • Breeding interval
    Common opossums breed 1 to 3 times annually.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding season varies depending on latitude, but likely correlates to seasonal precipitation.
  • Range number of offspring
    2 to 20
  • Average number of offspring
    6
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    13 to 15 days
  • Range weaning age
    90 to 125 days
  • Range time to independence
    90 to 125 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    6 to 7 minutes
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    Sex: male
    240 days
    AnAge

Common opossums offer very little parental care. Males have no involvement in raising their offspring and females invest a minimal effort. When their tiny offspring are born, they begin a harrowing journey to their mother’s pouch; many of the young will not survive. Female common opossums typically only have 9 teats available for nursing, so they often have more offspring than they can accommodate. However, they have a fairly low mortality rate once they are safely inside the pouch and nursing. The young may begin leaving the pouch when they are about 70 days old, at which time they may begin riding on their mother’s back while she forages. The young become independent when they are weaned between 90 and 125 days old. Interestingly, a study in Venezuela determined that females with ample resources are more likely to have mostly male offspring, whereas, when resources become limited they typically have a greater number of females in their litters. (Austad and Sunquist, 1987; Julien-Laferriere and Atramentowicz, 1990; Shripat, 2011; Tyndale-Biscoe and Mackenzie, 1976; Tyndale-Biscoe and Renfree, 1987)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

Common opossums are very short lived; they typically live fewer than 2 years. In a long term study of these animals, the oldest individual lived to be 20 months old, in another study; the oldest individual lived to be 11 months old. These animals experience their greatest mortality rate prior to maturity and while lactating. Common opossums are frequent victims of collisions with cars. (Kajin, et al., 2008; Pinowski, 2005; Reid, 2009; Sunquist, et al., 1987)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    2 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    4.2 years
    AnAge

Behavior

Common opossums are solitary and nocturnal. They begin their daily activities about an hour before sunset; however, their activity level peaks from 11 pm to 3 am. These animals are primarily terrestrial but spend a significant amount of time in trees, although other members of their genus are much more arboreal. During daylight hours, common opossums stay inside their burrows. Burrow locations vary and include tree cavities, underground, in palm or fig trees, in the tree canopy or in the abandoned nests of other species. These animals do not maintain a burrow for very long, males remain in the same den for about 1.5 days on average and females remain in the same den for about 5.1 days. (Adler, et al., 2012; Brito, et al., 2008; Julien-Laferriere and Atramentowicz, 1990; Reid, 2009; Shripat, 2011; Sunquist, et al., 1987; Vaughan, et al., 1999)

  • Range territory size
    0.081 to 1.838 km^2

Home Range

Male common opossums maintain a much larger home range than their female counterparts. Females average 16.3 hectares (+/- 8.2 ha), whereas males average a home range of 123 hectares (+/- 60.8 ha). Male home ranges overlap; generally there is about one individual per hectare. (Brito, et al., 2008; Sunquist, et al., 1987)

Communication and Perception

Common opossums use a variety of perception channels. Their auditory ability develops relatively late in life, young do not fully develop their auditory capabilities until they are about 80 days old. Common opossums may communicate vocally, specifically when they are engaged in an aggressive encounter. In such circumstances, these animals may hiss, growl or screech. Common opossums also perform a variety of visual displays when engaged in an aggressive interaction including rocking from side to side, drooling, baring their teeth, and in the case of an extreme threat, these animal have also been known to enter a catatonic state, commonly known as ‘playing opossum’. Olfaction is also used to communicate; common opossums may produce a secretion from their anal gland or spray urine and feces when a threat is perceived. Their vision is acute and is likely on par with the visual abilities of cats; however, their visual acuity is limited when compared to some primates. (Ehret, 1983; Oswaldo-Cruz, et al., 1979; Reid, 2009; Shripat, 2011; Volchan, et al., 2004)

Food Habits

Common opossums have a very broad diet. Their feeding habits are often referred to as opportunistic omnivory. Their diet includes invertebrates, vertebrates, leaves, fruits, nectar and carrion. Common opossums may alter their diet seasonally, during the dry season mammals and birds are more likely consumed, whereas during the wet season they rely more heavily on fruits, snakes and toads. Regardless of the season, invertebrates are a primary staple of their diet including earthworms, beetles and grasshoppers. After weaning, their diet remains fairly constant throughout their life, although older animals tend to consume vertebrates more frequently. Common opossums eat a variety of vertebrates including birds such as lance-tailed manikins, amphibians such as cane toads, reptiles such as Venezuelan rattlesnakes and a variety of small mammals. Interestingly, their ability to consume rattlesnakes is facilitated by their apparent immunity to the venom of many members of family Vipiridae. (Almeida-Santos, et al., 2000; Cerqueira and Tribe, 2008; Cordero and Nicolas, 1987; Garrett and Boyer, 1993; Reid, 2009; Reidy, 2009)

  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • carrion
  • insects
  • terrestrial worms
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • fruit
  • nectar

Predation

Given their abundance, common opossums are likely prey for a variety of large mammals throughout Central and South America. Their known predators include ocelots, jaguarundis and harpy eagles. When a threat is detected, common opossums may choose to run or climb a tree to evade predators. Less frequently, these animals may enter a catatonic state, commonly known as 'playing opossum'. This death feigning behavior may last as little as 1 minute or as long as 6 hours. (Gustavo, et al., 1990; Rotenberg, et al., 2012; Shripat, 2011)

Ecosystem Roles

Common opossums carry a variety of parasites; some reports claim they may carry up to 46 species of internal and external parasites. Most notably, Trypanosoma cruzi may be found in their anal glands. They also carry a variety of cestodes, nematodes and acanthocephala in their large and small intestines. Common opossums are also important seed dispersers. They move some seeds due to ingestion after eating fruits, such as for Cecropia. However, their shaggy fur also causes them to transport diasporas from Pavonia schiedeana and Desmodium incanum. These plants are anthropogenic herbs and have been introduced to the forest understory partially via the fur of animals. (Castillo-Flores and Calvo-Irabien, 2003; Cerqueira and Tribe, 2008; Deane, et al., 1984; Jimenez, et al., 2011; Medellin, 1994)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Cestode: Mathevotaenia bivittata
  • Nematode: Aspidodera raillieti; Capillaria eberthi; Cruzia tentaculata; Moennigia; Spirura guianensis; Travassostrongylus paraquintos; Trichuris reesali; Viannaia viannai
  • Acanthocephala: Oligacanthorhynchus microcephala; Oncicola campanulata

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Common opossums are often hunted by humans. They are killed for sport and food and are even part of the illegal wild game trade. Some cultures believe that the fat of common opossums can be used to treat a variety of ailments including stomach aches, rheumatism, diarrhea, inflammation, skin infections, labor pains, asthma, headaches, toothaches, ear aches and sore throats. (Alves and Rosa, 2006; Alves and Rosa, 2007; Brito, et al., 2008; Junior, et al., 2010)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Common opossums are known to transmit diseases which impact human populations, such as Chagas disease and leishmaniansis. These animals may also be considered pests due to their aptitude for killing bats caught in research mist nets and their proclivity for poultry. (Brito, et al., 2008; Cabello, 2006; Deane, et al., 1984; Reid, 2009)

Conservation Status

Common opossums are currently listed as a species of least concern according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. These animals are found throughout much of Central and South America and likely have a very large population size. Their ability to live in anthropogenically disturbed environments facilities this species broad success. (Brito, et al., 2008)

Other Comments

South American didelphids are commonly grouped into either ‘white-eared’ or ‘black-eared opossums’. Common opossums (Didelphis marsupialis) are included in the ‘black-eared opossum’ group, along with big-eared opossums (Didelphis aurita). (Cerqueira and Tribe, 2008)

Contributors

Leila Siciliano Martina (author), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

Glossary

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carrion

flesh of dead animals.

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

crepuscular

active at dawn and dusk

drug

a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

omnivore

an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

rainforest

rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

References

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