Possum vs Opossum: 10 Things You Should Know

Possums and opossums are common in different regions of the world. If you are not familiar with them, it may seem that possum and opossum are two names for the same animal. While they surely are different animals, how can you tell? There are a lot of differences between these similarly named animals. 

Possums and opossums are both marsupials, but that is about where their similarities end. These two animals have differences in appearance, food habits, ancestry, habitat, and more. Their scientific names are also different – which means species of possum and species of opossum will be different. 

For many people, opossums are considered beneficial to their environment. Some even consider keeping them as pets. Now that you are exploring the differences between these two marsupials, here are 10 things you should know about them. 

10 Things You Should Know About Possums And Opossums

While possums and opossums have a huge list of things to know about them, there are some key differences. The following list mentions their different living locations, their size and physical appearance, and their habits. Let’s see if any of these facts change your idea of these two animals.

Possums and opossums are also common animals to be kept as pets in areas where they are native. Some of their diet and behavior may be odd, but are they dangerous?

1. Possums and Opossums are Different in Size

Possums have a large range in their subspecies. Because of this, the sizes can differ within the species group. The common brushtail possum may weigh around 5 pounds. Other subspecies can weigh anywhere from 1 ounce to 20 pounds. Possums can also have diverse lengths within their subspecies.

On the other hand, opossums have a small range of subspecies. Within this range, the weight of the common opossum can go from 9 to 13 pounds. And the common opossum is also less than 3 feet long, including its prehensile tail. 

2. How You Can Identify a Possum

The possum is identifiable by its tail, firstly. Possums have thick and furry tails across their entire species. That is one of the reasons the common brushtail possum is known this way. Possums also tend to have more circular bodies. 

In Australia, you may see possums that have softer facial features and are more round. They also have thick fur that has a brownish color. This species of marsupial generally has brown eyes that look amber in light.

The possum is a small, marsupial creature that looks like a large rat. The possum has a long snout, sharp teeth, and pointed ears. Its fur is usually gray or brown, and its tail is long and furry.

The possum is first identified by its tail. Possums have thick and furry tails across their entire species. That is one of the reasons the common brushtail possum is known in this way. Possums also tend to have more circular bodies. 

Possums are nocturnal animals, so they are most active at night.

3. How You Can Identify an Opossum

Opossum species are also furry marsupials, but they are much larger than possums. Opossums have short snouts and round ears. Their fur is usually gray, a white face, and a thin bare tail. Opossums are also nocturnal animals, but they are not as active at night as possums are.

Their faces look longer than possums, with jagged teeth and a pointy snout. Opossums in North America are also brown or gray, but their southern counterparts can be white or black.

The fur covering an opossum’s body ends at its tail. This is the main difference between possum and opossum. 

4. They Come From Different Places

Possums and opossums are native to different areas around the world. In the case of a possum, you can find them in Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and China. People may refer to possums as opossums in these areas too. In this case, phalanger is the term that correctly names possums. 

Opossums are native to North America and can also sometimes be found in South America. They are the only marsupials you can find in North Mexico. 

5. Female Opossums and Opossums Have Pouches for Their Offspring

Both possums and opossums have one similar trait. The female opossums and possums have pouches on their torsos to carry their newborns. This is a common trait among marsupial bodies – and it is an important part of their reproductive process as well. 

The pouch in these bodies is also a helpful trait to identify female opossum or possum from males. 

6. Where Their Names Come From

The word possum and the word opossum both come from the same root word. In Powhatan, the word “aposoum” means “white animal.” Despite the differences between the North American opossum and the Australian possum, they come from the same word because of their similarities. 

Possums got their names later, from the North American opossum. There is one exception here, though. In the case of the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), both possum and opossum can mean this animal.

7. The Difference in Their Genetic Order

Yes, both possums and opossums are marsupials. While the different species of marsupials match in class, they have different orders. Possums belong to the order Diprotodontia. Diprotodontia is the largest marsupial order that has 155 species. The name of this order comes from a Greek word that means ‘two forward teeth’.

On the other hand, opossums belong to the order Didelphimorphia. This order represents marsupials that are the largest in the Western hemisphere – with more than 110 different species. In Latin, the term Didelmorphia means ‘two wombs’.

8. Are Possums or Opossums Endangered?

As for possums and opossums, some of their subspecies are unfortunately endangered. In the case of the possum, the common brushtail possum is doing better than most of its specie’s counterparts. But fairy possums, ringtail possums, and mahogany gliders are endangered due to climate change and changes in their habitats.

In the case of opossums, the common species of opossums are noted as the least concern by scientists. Some species of opossum are becoming more vulnerable to climate change and endangerment. 

9. The Diet of an Opossum vs Possum

The difference between these two species of marsupials is also in the diet. Australian possums favor a herbivorous diet, while North American opossums survive on an omnivorous diet. 

Possums will stick to eating different plants around their habitat. And opossums can scavenge or eat both plants and meat. Opossums eat insects, reptiles, and human garbage, and they can even survive on pet food. 

10. Possum and Opossum Defense Mechanisms are Different

There is a common term in the United States, known as “playing possum”. This comes from the defense mechanism of opossums – where they enter a comatose state in the face of threat. While the saying refers to playing dead or faking sleep, opossums do it on instinct. When predators seek them as prey, they involuntarily enter this state of ‘catatonia’. 

Playing possum allows opossums to ward off their predators, and they can wake up within a couple of minutes or hours. On the other hand, possums from the Oceania region do not react to threats in this way. Possums are curious, and would rather check out the threat than run away

Are Possums and Opossums a Danger to You or Your Home?

Possums and opossums tend to live in wooded areas inside tree holes and hanging out on tree branches. At night, they scavenge for food. Because they are active at night, they often feast on other roadkill or rummage through trash cans.

But there are chances that one might wander close to you or your home. You should not be concerned, though as these marsupials are generally harmless to people. 

Possums and opossums may cause some minor nuisance around your home. This happens when the animals build homes or look for food near urban areas or humans. A possum/opossum from the wild that is close to your home may find a way to rummage through garbage cans in search of food. 

Unless you own a possum or opossum as a pet, it is good to be aware of their presence near your home. Feral possums might contain diseases that you do not want around you. They may carry parasites from dead animals that they scavenge – and so, try to keep them in control or contact critter control help. 

Conclusion

Possums and opossums are two of the most common marsupial species in North America and Australian areas. While these animals are harmless in their habitats, it always helps to know when to be careful, and how to identify one for your safety and curiosity.

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.
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