Latin Name: Didelphis virginiana
Opossums are the only marsupial found in Canada. The Virginia Opossums is a solitary, nocturnal and opportunistic animal often seen near towns, rummaging through garbage, or as roadkill. Until recently, the opossum was not part of Ontario’s mammalian fauna, and it is not well documented when they arrived in the GTA, but they are now relatively common, particularly in larger parks and ravines. Although infrequently encountered, they are active throughout the year, and as omnivores will frequent garbage storage areas, composters, or bird feeders leading to conflict with humans.
Different species of Opossum vary considerably in size and are in fact one of the most variably sized mammals. The Virginia Opossum ranges from 64-102 cm (25-40”) in overall length and 1.8-6.3 kg (4-14 lbs) in weight. Opossums have dull, greyish brown coats and white faces. Their long, naked prehensile tails are used to carry objects, and kits can commonly be seen using them to hang upside down on branches. Their hairless ears and long flat noses make them vulnerable to frostbite during Southern Ontario’s colder winter months. Although timid, Opossums have ferocious looking teeth that they will bare when frightened, typically just before ‘playing possum’, or, dead. Their clawless rear thumbs are opposable.
Their breeding season occurs between early December and October, and kits are typically born between February and June. Adult females will have up to three litters per year, and it is common for 20 or 30 young to be birthed in each litter. Since the female only has 13 teets in her pouch, arranged in a circle with one in the centre, up to 13 may survive. An average litter is eight or nine joeys, which will reside in their mother’s pouch for about 2.5 months, before eventually climbing on her back. They reach maturity and leave their mother after about four or five months. Marsupials often have short lifespans, Opossums usually survive in the wild for a maximum of two years, and even in captivity, it is rare for them to live beyond four.
The Virginia opossum reacts to threats by feigning death, an involuntary reaction triggered by extreme fear. With enough stimulation, and after ferociously screeching and barring its 50 teeth, an opossum will enter a near coma. Laying on its side, mouth and eyes open, tongue hanging out, it will emit a green, putrid fluid from its anus that aims to repel predators. Although the mammal remains fully conscious, its heart rate drops by half, and its breathing rate slows by about 30%. A non-native species to Southern Ontario, the migration northward of the Virginia opossum, has a resulted in a population whose tails and ears are frequently ravaged by frostbite; although Opossums do not hibernate, they typically den up, dramatically reducing activity, during temperatures below -12.
Opossums do not build shelters of their own but will occupy empty dens left by raccoons and skunks, who themselves typically only expand the burrows left by other animals.
Opossums and Humans/Pets:
Like raccoons, opossums are found in urban environments, where they eat pet food, rotten fruit, and human garbage in tandem with insects, frogs, birds, snakes, mammals and carrion. Opossums are often killed on roadsides as they scavenge for dead animal bodies. They are surprisingly resistant to rabies, mainly because they have lower body temperatures than most placental mammals and do not transmit diseases to humans. In fact, opossums limit the spread of Lyme disease, as they successfully kill off most disease-carrying ticks that feed on them. The Virginia Opossum began it arrival in Ontario as early as 1858 and is now found along the Great Lakes, from Goderich to east of Kingston, where it has established itself as a road kill victim and structural pest.
The easiest way to control or prevent opossums from inhabiting a structure on your property is by implementing physical control measures in tandem with opossum removal by a licensed technician from Addison Pest Control. The property must be inspected for entry points to structures where they may take shelter or occupy an existing den. If opossums are within a structure, they must be removed before permanent seals are installed, in particular between the months of February and June when joeys are being reared who may not be mobile. Brush, woodpiles, lush vegetation, dilapidated structures should be removed from the property, the area should be brightly lit, ammonia and other deterrents can be spread around entryways to the den or sound can be loudly played to scare animals away. More tips and information, including Municipal rules for wildlife trapping and removal, can be found on the City of Toronto’s website here. Addison Pest Control complies with all Municipal, Provincial and Federal regulations concerning the safe and ethical removal of wildlife pests.
Note: Opossums are fur-bearing mammals under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. In defence of preservation of property, a person is permitted to capture an animal on their land. However, current Ministry of Natural Resources regulations state that using body-gripping traps or placing poison could result in criminal charges and provincial charges with fines up to $5,000. Humane wildlife removal from your property should be undertaken by a licensed structural pest control professional.