Australian Possum and American Opossum: Key Main Difference

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At some point, you’ve wondered, the difference between Australian possum and American opossum. 

You are not alone because most people don’t know where the difference comes from. This article explores the difference between these two animals. 

You will notice that Aussies love their possum and some keep them as pets while the American version is ugly and scary. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at how the “O” became silent?

Why is the O Silent?

A lot of people confuse possum and opossum to be the same animal. Although they may have similarities, they’re not the same. The American possum is an opossum while the Australian possum is just a possum without the “O”.

The early British Colonists used the word opossum to describe the Virginia Opossum around 1610-ish. The word “opossum” comes from the Powhatan language. Therefore if you want to be correct, use opossum to refer to the species in America and Possum to refer to the Australian’s species.

Scientific research and study show American possums and Australian Possum are not related in any way. The confusion came when Sir Joseph Banks named the Australian animal the possum. He gave the name because the animals looked similar to the American opossums. Why did he leave the use of the “O”? We have no idea.

Many Wildlife books don’t classify them as similar animals although they look familiar. The American opossums have a scary look because of their sharp teeth while the Australian possums are cute animals.

American Opossum Vs Australian Possum: The Scientific Classification

What Are Opossums?

Opossums are North American marsupials with whiteface and a greyish body. They have black ears, black feet and sharp pointed teeth similar to cats. The animal is also called the North America Virginia possum.

They have a bare tail that resembles a bat tail. The opossum’s face is ugly and scary. Opossums scare a lot of people in their backyard. The opossum belongs to the order Didelphimorphia. The name is derived from the word Powhatan which is a language used by the Virginia Algongulan people. The word “opossum” means a beast or a white dog in Powhatan.

The opossum is found in Southern Canada, Argentina, North America, and Chile in South America. Therefore the word “opossum” refers to the more than 100 different species of marsupials that belong to the superorder Ameridelphia. 

A quick search on the IUCN red list returns 111 species of opossums. The opossum belongs to the family Didelphidae which has 96 to 102 species of opossum and the family Caenolestidae has 7 species of shrew opossums. 

Scientists say that shrew opossums are not the same as opossums although they look similar. The only opossum you’ll find in the United States is the Virginia opossum. However, as you move to the south, the diversity of these creatures starts to occur. 

In the diversity of these animals, we have one species that is only adapted to water called the Yapok or water opossum. Water opossum is the only aquatic marsupial that we have that has some unusual features such as webbed back feet and a waterproof pouch.

The opossum family, Didelphidae, consists of tribes and subfamilies. The 19 genera have 96 living species of opossums. When people think of opossums they think of two species, the Virginia opossum and the common opossum. 

The scientific name for a common opossum is Didelphis marsupials while the Virginia opossum is Didelphis Virginiana. They both have a canoe-shaped nose, a long Charles tail, and grey and black hair. Here are some interesting types of opossums species:

Chacoan Pygmy Opossum

These are the world’s smallest opossums measuring 12 cm in length. They are found in Argentina. These species have not been seen for 70 years but one was spotted in 2004.

Lutrine opossums

You’ll find them in southern Brazil and Argentina. They are carnivorous opossums because they feed exclusively on meat. Although they are not aquatic-like water possums, they can dive and hunt prey underwater.

Patagonia Possums

These species of opossum live in the cold steeple of Patagonia. They have adapted to the cold climate by having a short, thick tail to store fat. What’s more, they have switched from eating fruits and insects to eating large vertebrates like birds, lizards, and mice.

Thylophorops

They are now extinct. Those species used to live in South America. They were large opossums that weighed 7 kilograms and they were more of a macropredator. One theory has it that they used to eat burrowing animals

Water Opossums (or Yapok)

They are the only marsupials that have adapted to aquatic life. They are close cousins to lutrine opossum. Yapok has back feet that are webbed while the front ones aren’t to maintain dexterity. What’s cool about these marsupials is that they can swim without drowning their young ones. Both males and females have airtight pouches.

What is a Possum

A possum is an Australia Marsupial. They get their name because they look similar to possums of America. Sir Joseph Banks stated that they bore a strong resemblance. The Possums are in four color variations like silver-grey, black, brown, and gold.

The Australian possums are called the common opossums and they look like chinchillas although their color is different. They have a larger ear than those of Virginia opossums. Their coats are thick and soft.

What’s more, they have a bushy tail that is covered in fur. The scientific name for this possum is phalangeridae. The name possum refers to 67 marsupial species in the suborder called phalangeriformes. They’re found in Australia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.

Possums in Australia live in bushlands, forests, and woodlands. Brushtail possums and ringtail possums are the two most common and largest possums found in Australia. They do have long tails and grey or brown bodies. 

Their hind feet are syndactylous which means, their skin is separated next to the claws but linked to the joint. Here are the interesting types of possum found in Australia.

The Common Brushtail Possum

They belong to the family Phalangeridae. They are the second-largest possum found in Australia. Those species can adapt to any habitat, which means you can find them in the tropical rainforest and other areas. They are so common in urban areas where they walk on the rooftops. Their color depends on where they live.

The Common Ringtail Possum

Those possums live in different places because they can feed on diverse vegetation such as herbs, fruits, and flowers. The common ringtail possum eats varieties of foods. They love to stay on trees and you can rarely find them on the ground. They got the name Ringtail because of the prehensile tail that wraps around branches.

Honey Possum

These types of possum don’t feed on honey but on nectar and pollen. Their scientific name is Tarsipes rostratus. The possum has the special skill of climbing trees without using its claws. 

The animal is sociable and you can find it in the company of others. When it faces a scarcity of food the animal goes into hibernation. You can find those creatures in South-West Western Australia.

The Mountain Brushtail Possum

Its other name is also called the Short-eared possum because it has short-round ears. The possum has grey fur on the top part and white underneath. Some mountain Brushtail possums have black fur instead of grey. 

These types of short-eared possum are found in open and rainforests where they stay in hollows of trees. Like the common Brushtail, the mountain brushtail has a long back tail that helps in climbing up trees when searching for food.

Leadbeater’s Possum

This type of possum species is also called Gymnobelideus Leadbeater. The Leadbeater is an endangered species and it is also called the fairy possum. You can find this possum on the tallest trees in the rainforests.

 Its body is 33 cm together with the tail. The possum lives in a monogamous pair where they mate and give birth twice per year. Unlike other types of possum species, their diet is a bit diverse. You’ll find them feeding on spiders, crickets, termites, beetles, wattle saps, and arthropods.

Striped Possum

The animal is also known as Dactylopsila Trivirgata and it is found in Townsville, Queensland. The possum is called that way because of the black and white color stripping that runs from head to tail. 

The white stripes form a “y” shape on the head. The animal is also nocturnal and spends most of its time on trees. You can rarely find the possum on the trees. Another name for the possum is called the woodpecker because it has adapted to finding food on trees.

During the day, the animal rests on the trees and ventures to find food during the night. The animal is so rare and it lives in solitary.

American Opossum and Australian Possum: The Diet

The possum’s main diet consists of leaves, buds, flowers, fruits, ferns, bark, fungi, invertebrates, native birds, land snails, and carrion. 

During the winter the possum forages for food in the afternoon although it prefers to search during the night. Sick possums can also come during the day in the afternoon to search for food. 

In some areas, possums can eat whole canopies of rata, totara, titoki, kowhai, and kohekohe.

Opossums on the other hand eat insects, earthworms, slugs, snails, crayfish, frogs, small rodents, eggs, grasses, fruits, vegetables, berries, grains, human garbage, and dead animals. Since they have tough powerful jaw muscles they can eat snails, shells, and bones. 

What’s more, opossums can eat snakes and some poisonous snakes. One interesting fact is that they have a strong immune system that shows a total or partial immunity against the venom of rattlesnakes, cottonmouth, and pot vipers.

American Opossum and Australian Possum: The Physical Appearance and Traits

Possum appearance

The sharp-toothed opossum looks ugly and scarier than the Australian possum that looks cute. The possum has a thick, busy, and long tail. The animal also has a pointed face, protruding eyes, and large long tapering eyes. 

The long claws help in holding and gripping branches. Possums exist in shades of grey and black, and some will have white patches on their bodies. 

You’ll find a black possum in Tasmania. The throat’s fur and the chest are usually a dark rusty red, especially in grey male possums.
The size and weight of possums depend on their habitat and species. Adult possums in New Zealand weigh between 65 and 95 cm in length. They can weigh anywhere between 2.09 to 14.11 pounds. The smallest possum is the Tasmanian pygmy possum which weighs 10g and 70mm in length.

Opossum appearance

Opossums have coarse, long, flat hair. Opossums have hair loss, rounded ears, and pink noses. Their coat is usually greyish white although some opossums are dark, especially those in the southeastern U.S. 

Their face is white while their head is triangular with a pointed pink nose. The adult opossum has 50 teeth which consist of small incisors, and large canines, and it shows the teeth when scared. Their tail is a foot long and prehensile.

Unlike possum, the opossum has a little hair on the tail. They use their tail to hold nesting materials and tree branches. Their feet resemble small hands with five spread fingers.

The American opossum is the size of a cat with a length of between 60 to 90 cm long. The opossum weighs about 15 pounds or 6.80kg.

Opossum Vs Possum: Reproduction and Life Cycle

Possum

Possum females take a year to reach sexual maturity while males take two years. A female possum can give birth to one young possum per year and at times they can produce two. 

Possums do have a gestation period of 17 to 18 days. A baby possum weighs about 0.2 grams. Newborn opossums are born blind and with no fur. When newborn possums are born, they crawl into their mother’s pouch and attach themselves to the nipple for 70 days.

A ringtail possum has a prehensile tail and can give birth to one to four young ones. The newborn brush-tailed possums remain in the mother’s pouch for four to five months.

Opossums

Female opossums have bifurcated vaginae while male possums have bifurcated penises. Besides the abdominal pouch, the female opossums have two ovaries, two oviducts, two uteri, and two cervices. 

Female opossums spend between 70 to 125 days in their mother’s pouch. Unlike the possum, a female opossum gives birth to an average of 23 opossums. Some of the newborn opossums will fail to attach to the opossum’s back.

A mother opossum has 12 teats. Opossums that fail to attach to the teats latch onto the perish. Once they attach to the teat, the teat swells up and remains in the baby’s mouth. The average lifespan for a common or virgin opossum is one to two years.

Are Opossum More Dangerous than Possum

The Australian possums are cute and beautiful. They do not fear humans and don’t carry diseases. You shouldn’t worry about Australian possums because they won’t harm you. What’s more, opossums are naturally resistant to rabies which is hard to explain scientifically.

The American possum is also resistant to rabies and has immunity to other sensory diseases. Those creatures can eat dangerous snakes like rattlesnakes. To most people, both animals are dangerous and can carry deadly diseases.

Possum and opossum are different creatures that many people confuse. In America, we have an ugly version of possums. In Australia, their version is cuter. 

To Aussies, their possums do not resemble the creeping rat-tailed opossum. Both species have a low level of intelligence. However, the North American species has a unique habit is playing dead when attacked.

Conclusion

Going forward you should be able to tell the difference between an Australian Possum and an American opossum. Although they are all marsupials, keep in mind they are different animals. 

If you are in Australia, know that we have the cuter version of the creatures and the scary-ugly version is in America. If someone is calling possum and opossum, they need to tell you which version they are referring to. We hope this article sheds more light on the difference between opossums and possums.

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