Common opossum (Didelphis marsupialis).—Robert J. Ellison—The National Audubon Society Collection/Photo Researchers

Any of about 66 species (family Didelphidae) of New World, mostly arboreal, nocturnal marsupials. Highly adaptable and prolific, opossums have changed little in millions of years. The North American species, the stout-bodied common, or Virginia, opossum (Didelphis marsupialis), grows to 40 in. (100 cm) long. It is largely white and has an opposable clawless toe on each hind foot; with its long, hairless, prehensile tail, it resembles a large rat. Up to 25 grublike, 0.07-oz (2-g) newborns compete for the 13 nipples in the pouch, where the survivors spend four or five weeks; they spend the following eight to nine weeks clinging to the mother's back. The common opossum may feign death (“play possum”) if surprised. It eats small animals, insects, and fruit, and sometimes domestic poultry and cultivated grain. See also possum.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
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