Flora and Fauna – Virginia Opossum

The Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) may be the strangest neighbor you don’t even know you have.

These odd looking critters are not only the sole marsupial inhabitants of New York City, but also the continent of North America.

They are excellent climbers, and quite crafty, so they have a habit of getting themselves in all sorts of trouble – and maybe even your trash trash.

Most people that I ask in the city don’t know that opossums live here – but those people aren’t paying attention.

I’ve seen them on more than a few occasions, and always when I least expect them – I remember my first encounter to this day.

I was walking to catch a train home and passed under the Williamsburg bridge at Driggs and South 5th Street.

I was on my way home from a party, much later than I should have been on a weeknight, but this also meant there was no one else really around – or so I thought.

I turned the corner under the tunnel, and came face to face with a young opossum staring up at me from the sidewalk.

We both jumped back in simultaneous surprise – though I believe that she was more frightened than me, as she was the one to scurry off into the night.

Many people aren’t too fond of these creatures – after all, they are likely suspects for knocked over trash bins across all five boroughs, along with raccoons.

A city councilman accused the city of releasing the opossums to combat the city’s rat problem back in a 2010 interview with the New York Post, but there seems a more likely explanation.

What most people don’t know is that if the trash we created weren’t around, they likely wouldn’t be able to survive here.

You can tell a opossum is young if it’s tail is intact – ones that have survived more than a winter are almost always missing the tip from frostbite, likely because they didn’t evolve to cope with harsh winters without our help.

Research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst suggests that opossums survive outside their typical southern range primarily where people – and their delicious garbage – exist.

Possums get a bad rap for eating garbage, but that isn’t all that they eat – in fact they’ll eat just about anything, including ticks, and in a time where lyme disease is on the rise, this is something we should thank them for.

Love them or hate them, the possums don’t seem to have much of a reason to go anywhere for now – as long as we’re feeding them and giving them shelter in the winter, they’ve got no real reason to leave.

The study I refer to was completed by the wildlife biologist I worked for and studied under for much of my undergraduate education, Professor Leann Kanda, was her dissertation titled, “Factors influencing survival and reproduction of Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana) at their northern distributional limit“.

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