They steal from your garden. Now they’ll steal your hearts too.
They’re furry. They’re cute. They’re native Australian animals you thought you knew. But there are still a lot of amazing details about possums that might surprise you.
What’s in the pouch?
Like kangaroos and koala bears, possums are marsupials. One unique characteristic of marsupials is that they give birth to an underdeveloped young. The adult female, at least for most marsupials, has a pouch on its belly for carrying its babies.
Newborn marsupials are very tiny and furless--think of a pink jelly bean! They are also born blind, and deaf, and their hind legs are pretty underdeveloped. So yeah, they are kind of helpless little creatures. This is because they spend only a brief time in their mother’s womb. For the possum, that’s around only 14 to 17 days depending on the species.
It’s a good thing though that mother nature has given them a great sense of smell and pretty strong forelimbs so they can crawl their way from the birth canal opening into the pouch and find a teat to latch on. Once they attach on a teat, they will not be able to let go because their mom’s nipple will expand in their mouths.
Now all they have to do is feed on their mom’s milk and grow big. The pouch helps the baby marsupials keep warm and protected while they continue to develop physically.
A baby possum will stay inside the pouch for around four months, or less for smaller possum species. By this time, the once pink jellybean-ish possum will now be covered in fur, have strong hind legs, and some can hear and see clearly too. Now the baby possum, also known as joey is ready to go out into the world, with a bit of mom’s help of course.
Depending on the species, possums can be found in a variety of environments like forests, woodlands, shrublands, and even alpine and sub-alpine regions. Some possums like the common brushtail possum and the common ringtail possum have found their way into urban areas because of the destruction of their natural habitats.
Most possums live on trees. Hollowed-out trees are their preference because they get protected from predators.
But some species like the rock ringtail possums are adapted to live on the ground. They have shorter legs and stockier tails than most possums. During the day, they sleep in rock crevices and at night time they climb trees to eat leaves, fruits, and flowers. Likewise, the mountain pygmy possums are mainly ground-dwelling and can be found in the alpine boulder fields and scree in Southern Australia.
Those that live in urban areas like to make their dens in the ceilings or wall cavities of houses.
Aside from Australia, possums are also native to New Guinea Island, and Sulawesi Island in Indonesia.
Types of possums
Australia is home to 27 species of possums scattered all over the country.
The tiniest of the possums, the little pygmy possum, also known as Tasmanian pygmy possum is just around six to seven centimetre long from the snout to the base of the tail and weighs around seven to ten grams! They are found in Tasmania, Kangaroo Island, and Victoria, Australia.
The mountain pygmy possum, the largest of the pygmy possums is the only known possum and marsupial that hibernates for an extended period. They hibernate in sheltered boulders under the snow for up to seven months.
While most possums have furry tails, the scaly-tailed possum, the honey possum and the five pygmy possums have little or no fur on their tails.
Some possums like the sugar glider, squirrel glider, and yellow-bellied glider have gliding membranes that extend from their forelegs to their hind legs which allows them to glide through the air as they move from tree to tree. The bigger gliders can travel more than 100 metres in a single jump! Some can even do a u-turn in mid-air.
Unfortunately, several possum species like the mountain pygmy possum, the Leadbeater’s possum, and the mahogany glider are endangered mostly because of encroachment of their habitats.
Possums are sometimes confused with opossums which are entirely different marsupial species that are native to America.
What’s for dinner?
Most possums mainly eat leaves, fruits, nectars, and flowers. They also sometimes snack on bird eggs, insects, snails, lizards, and other small animals.
Some possums like the brushtail possum and the greater glider prefer to eat eucalyptus leaves. The leaves are toxic to other animals and humans, but these possums (and koalas) have adapted digestive systems that let them eat eucalyptus leaves without getting harmed.
The honey possums exclusively feed on nectar and pollen using their long pointy snouts and brushed-tipped tongue.
The rare mountain pygmy possums prefer to eat protein-rich Bogong Moths since they need to fatten themselves up for hibernation during the long winter months in the alpine regions. They also eat seeds and small fruits when Bogong Moths are unavailable.
The green ringtail possum is the only known possum to eat fig leaves.
Bonus possum facts
Possums may be cute and cuddly, but it is best to curb your desire to pet these adorable creatures as they generally want to be left alone.
Many possum species are solitary. Unless they are looking for a mate or are taking care of a young one, they would rather go about their business alone. Some species like the ringtail possums live in a communal nest called a drey.
Like many native animals in Australia, possums are active at night. They spend most of the day sleeping.
They are typically not aggressive but will try to defend themselves when threatened.
Possums have long tails, sometimes longer than their bodies. Some types of possums have prehensile tails which help them to grasp on tree branches so they can swing around more easily.