E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Didelphis virginiana Kerr
North American Opossum; Opossum; Virginia Opossum
Family: Didelphidae
Species account author: David Nagorsen
Extracted from the Opossums, Shrews and Moles of British Columbia

© Paul Pratt  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #10875)


Distribution of Didelphis virginiana in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Opossums, Shrews and Moles of British Columbia by David Nagorsen © Royal BC Museum

Introduction


The Virginia Opossum, a marsupial, is an alien mammal species in British Columbia that was introduced to Washington State and spread northward into BC. In their 1958 publication, Alien Animals in British Columbia, Clifford and Guiget document the arrival of the opossum in BC: "Opossums were introduced on Camano Island and at Sedro Woolley, Washington about 1925 and have apparently become established there. Two specimens killed at Crescent Beach, British Columbia, in December 1949..." Since 1949, opossums have become established in the Fraser Valley and have also been introduced to Hornby Island.

Species Information


Click on the image(s) below to view an expanded illustration for this taxon.



Illustration Source: Opossums, Shrews and Moles of British Columbia by David Nagorsen © Royal BC Museum

The North American Opossum is a cat-sized mammal with a pointed snout, naked ears, and a long, scaly, naked tail; its hind feet have a clawless, opposable large toe. The fur is long and dense, consisting of medium-length guard hairs that are white at the base and dark at the tips, scattered longer white guard hairs, and woolly white underfur. A black colour phase with long black-tipped guard hairs occurs in some populations. The face is white; the ears are black with white tips; the lower legs and the basal portion of the tail are black; and the palms and toes are flesh-coloured. The chest fur of males is often yellowish from glandular stains. Females have a fur-lined abdominal pouch with the teats arranged in a horseshoe arc and an additional teat in the centre. Males are larger and heavier than females.

The skull has a small narrow braincase with a prominent sagittal crest that is more pronounced in males. The angular process of the mandible is bent inward. There are 50 teeth; the canines are long and pointed and are larger in males.

Identification

The North American Opossum cannot be confused with any other British Columbian mammal. Its skull is easily distinguished by the presence of 50 teeth (more than any other British Columbian mammal), 10 upper and 8 lower incisors, and the constricted braincase.

Dental Formula

incisors: 5/4
canines: 1/1
premolars: 3/3
molars: 4/4

Measurements

total length: 753 (635-859) n = 142
tail vertebrae: 286 (246-358) n = 141
hind foot: 65 (57-78) n = 142
ear: 55 (47-62) n = 102
weight: 2719 (1500-4050) n = 54 (males)
2088 (1450-2850) n = 80 (females)

Biology

Reproduction

The breeding season is nearly year-long, extending from mid December to the following November. In Oregon, the breeding season begins in late December or early January, and there are three peaks in breeding activity: January to February, mid April to early May, and October to mid November. Preliminary data from Malcolm McAdie's research indicate that breeding occurs between mid February and mid June on Hornby Island, with two possible peaks in breeding. No breeding Opossums were found on Hornby in the fall. Although it appears that females breed throughout the year in Oregon, most authorities have concluded that females can produce only two litters in a breeding season. From one to seventeen young may be born, but the litter size is usually six to ten. Malcolm McAdie observed litter sizes of one to twelve, with seven most common, for the Hornby Island population. Litters of one young are probably unsuccessful because the stimulus of at least two nursing young is needed to maintain lactation.

The gestation period is only 13 days. The tiny newborns, weighing only 0.13 grams and measuring about 14 millimetres in length, immediately crawl to the pouch with no assistance from the mother. The front feet of the newborn are well developed and are equipped with deciduous claws that help it crawl to the pouch. Once inside the pouch, a young Opossum attaches itself to a nipple. Within a few days the tip of the nipple enlarges inside the mouth and the young is firmly attached to its mother where it will nurse for 55 to 60 days. By 55 days the eyes and mouth begin to open, and short sparse hair is evident. At 70 days the young begin to make short trips outside the pouch, and they may be left in the den when the mother forages. They are weaned and become independent of their mother at around 100 days of age. Although the mother provides milk and protection, maternal behaviour is poorly developed. Males play no role in the raising of the young.

Captive female North American Opossums may breed at six months and males may reach sexual maturity by eight months. Fertility is reduced in older females, and most of the breeding animals in a population are those that were born the previous spring.
Diet

Numerous studies of food habits in the midwestern and eastern states have demonstrated that the North American Opossum is an opportunistic feeder that preys on a variety of vertebrate animals and scavenges carrion and garbage. Major prey are small mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, earthworms, snails, insects, fruits and other plant material. Dietary data for Pacific coast habitats are limited to David Hopkins and Richard Forbes' study of an urban opossum population in Portland, Oregon. Hopkins and Forbes found that small mammals, earthworms, slugs, beetles, pet food, fruits, grasses and leaf litter were the most important foods for this population. The relative importance of these food types varied seasonally: mammals were the most important in winter and spring, slugs in summer, and fruits in autumn. More than half the mammals in the opossums' diet were North American Opossums, presumably carrion from road kills. Few birds, reptiles and amphibians were eaten by the Portland population. Birds seldom represent more than seven per cent of an opossum's diet; the reputation of this mammal as a major predator of bird eggs and nestlings may be exaggerated. In some parts of eastern North America, frogs, toads, salamanders and snakes are important food items. Their low occurrence in the Portland study may reflect low populations in an urban setting.
Natural History

Movements and home range size have been studied by live-trapping and radiotelemetry. There is no evidence that the North American Opossum is territorial: home ranges of adults and juveniles of both sexes seem to overlap extensively, and individuals may share the same den site. Home range estimates are from 5 to 39 hectares. Males tend to have larger home ranges than females, and home range size is larger in unproductive habitats such as intensively cultivated farm land. Adults generally travel 300 to 600 metres from their dens when foraging at night. The young usually remain close to the den, but when they disperse they may move long distances covering several kilometres in a single night. Females with young may be loyal to the same den site, especially during the weaning period, but non-breeding females and males change their den sites often. For example, a male followed by radio tracking used 19 different dens in five months. Population densities generally range from one to five animals per square kilometre, but in some habitats populations can reach a hundred opossums per square kilometre.

The North American Opossum is active between dawn and dusk. It does not hibernate, but it is less active in the winter; more daytime activity is evident during cold spells. Opossums accumulate some fat stores for winter, but their fur does not provide much insulation. They fill their dens with dried leaves and grass to form well-insulated nests. When the temperature falls below freezing, opossums deal with the cold by remaining in their dens and reducing the temperature of poorly insulated extremities such as the ears and tail. The northern limits of the North American Opossum are determined by winter temperature. Animals living at the northern edge of the range, including coastal British Columbia, often have frostbite damage on their ears and tails.

The North American Opossum walks on the soles of its feet. It is a slow but capable climber, using hand-over-hand movements; the opposable "thumb", prehensile tail and friction pads on the feet provide a firm grip on branches. It transports nesting material in its coiled tail, and uses its front limbs and mouth to construct the nest. Opossums are unable to dig burrows, but exploit ground dens constructed by other mammals. They will readily enter water and are capable of swimming distances of several hundred metres.

North American Opossums are solitary. Males tend to be aggressive to other males, and their encounters are characterized by open-mouth threats, growling and screeching. They use various dance displays and bluffing routines to establish dominance. If neither male retreats, the encounter may escalate to a fight to the death.

The opossum will employ any of several defence behaviours when it encounters a potential predator. The best known is "playing possum", feigning death: the opossum falls on its side, body flexed and immobile, mouth slightly open and emitting large amounts of saliva; it usually recovers immediately after the threat is over.

North American Opossums seem to have short life spans: most do not survive beyond one breeding season. Captive animals may live for four years, but in the wild, few live beyond two years. Survival rates are low. Only 25 to 40 per cent of the young survive the first four weeks after weaning and as few as 10 per cent survive to their first breeding season. Their predators include Coyotes, Bobcats, Racoons, Red Foxes, dogs and Great Horned Owls. Motor vehicles take a large toll on the opossum, and road kills are a common sight along highways in the Fraser River valley.

Habitat


In eastern North America, the North American Opossum inhabits deciduous woodlands near wetlands, agricultural land and suburban areas. Wet shrubby thickets, and areas near water and forest edges seem to be its preferred habitats. Habitat requirements in British Columbia have not been studied, but in the Fraser River valley, the North American Opossum has been found in forests, cultivated farm lands and urban areas including densely populated regions of Vancouver. Den sites include underground burrows dug by other mammals, rock crevices, old stumps, logs, hollow trees, woodpiles and abandoned crows' nests in trees. They provide protection from predators and inclement weather.

Distribution


The North American Opossum ranges from Middle America north through eastern North America to extreme southern Ontario. It was introduced to parts of western North America, including Washington State and southwestern British Columbia. The British Columbian population inhabits the lower Fraser River valley as far east as Hope, although there is an unconfirmed extralimital record from Spuzzum. The opossum was introduced to Hornby Island off the eastern coast of Vancouver Island in 1986, and there were several confirmed records from the Victoria region of southern Vancouver island in 1992.

Taxonomy


Four subspecies are recognized. The introduced populations of western North America all belong to the subspecies Didelphis virginiana virginiana Allen, a race found throughout eastern North America. In some of the earlier literature, the North American Opossum was classified as Didelphis marsupialis. D. marsupialis is now considered to be a separate species found in Middle and South America.

Remarks


The British Columbian populations are derived from animals introduced to Washington State in the 1920s. The North American Opossum was first recorded in the province at Cloverdale in 1946; it subsequently spread throughout the lowlands of the Fraser River valley. The impact of this alien mammal on the native vertebrate fauna has not been studied. In 1986, the species was released on Hornby Island, a 28-square-kilometre island off the east coast of Vancouver Island. There are no natural mammalian predators for the opossum on Hornby and the species has flourished. Since 1988, about 600 Didelphis virginiana have been trapped in an attempt to eradicate the species from Hornby. Although the opossum could have a detrimental effect on some of the native vertebrates of Hornby, especially the amphibians, there is more concern about the species reaching nearby Vancouver Island where it would be difficult to contain. In 1992, a dead North American Opossum was found near the Victoria airport and four live opossums were sighted at Cordova Bay in Victoria. The origin of these animals is not known. There have been no confirmed sightings since 1992, and it appears the species is not yet established on southeastern Vancouver Island.

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
COSEWIC
ExoticSNAExoticNot Listed
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Photo Sources

General References


Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2019. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 22/09/2019 3:26:14 PM]
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