OPOSSUM AND ITS TRACKS

During my walks in Eliza Howell Park over the years, I have seen 14 mammal species, not including anything smaller than chipmunk (like vole and deer mouse) and not including feral domestic animals like dogs and cats.

One of the most fascinating is Virginia Opossum. Opossum is a mostly nocturnal mammal that is occasionally active in daytime, probably when it has a harder time finding adequate food. I do not see them often, but when I do, it is usually in winter. I saw one on my most recent nature walk. Though I was not in a position to get a picture at that time (it was walking away from me behind thick shrubs), I had been able to a close-up picture at Lake Erie Metropark only a day before.

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Opossum is different from most other local mammals in several ways. 1) It is the only native North American marsupial, mammals that carry their young in a pouch. 2) One of its defenses is to feign death to prevent attack by rolling over, shutting its eyes, and letting its tongue to loll (“playing possum”). 3) Its hairless tail is prehensile, able to grasp things.

The opossum is an omnivore. Its diet includes earthworms, insects, frogs, birds, snakes, berries, and carrion. It has adapted to areas populated by humans and includes garbage in its diet.

It walks rather slowly (I have never seen one run) and I can often walk up to it when it is in the open. It is usually seen, like this, not paying any particular attention to humans.

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There is another opossum feature that I find very interesting, especially in tracking season: the feet. The front feet have 5 quite evenly spaced pink toes that look like fingers with nails.

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The rear feet also have 5 toes, but with a difference. The innermost toe is opposable, sticks out to the side like a thumb, different from other local mammals. Because of the angle, this toe does not show clearly in the picture.

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Winter is the most common time to see opossum during the day. It is also the best time of the year to see the tracks, in the snow or in the mud at thaw time. I have not seen any opossum tracks recently, but this drawing (from the Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks) shows what the tracks look like (rear foot on the left and front on the right) and shows, as well, the bottom of the feet.

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Perhaps because it looks something like a mouse or rat, some people do not find the opossum attractive. Whether seen as attractive or not, it is a fascinating part of the biological diversity of Eliza Howell Park.

ADDENDUM:

A couple days after posting the above, I did find opossum tracks. This is what they look like “in real life.”

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