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The Virginia opossum—one of a kind

As Jim and I drove down the road to our house last Wednesday evening, we saw a pair of yellow eyes watching us from the roadside. As we drew closer, we saw that it was one of our welcome visitors, a Virginia opossum. It turned away and disappeared into the bushes, a pale gray ghost with a long, naked, rat-like tail.

The Virginia or North American opossum (Didelphis virginiana) migrated from South to Central America about three million years ago, and from Mexico to North America about a million years ago. Today, the range of the Virginia opossum stretches from Costa Rica north to Ontario, Canada, and as far west as Nebraska and South Dakota. It is North America’s only marsupial.

The name opossum, often shortened to “possum,” is taken from the Algonquian (Powhatan) language from a term that means “white beast,” possibly in reference to the animal’s pale face and grizzled gray fur. John Smith reported in 1612 that the housecat-sized opossum had the head of a pig and the tail of a r...

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