Jon de Vos – Playing possum
April 1, 2010
Recently a Pennsylvania Highway Patrolman arrested an abundantly intoxicated fellow who startled several motorists as he knelt by the highway, giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a road-killed opossum that was several days dead and soundly scrunched by a substantial amount of traffic. He explained to the officer that he thought the flattened animal might just be “playing possum”.
This incident raises an important question: What’s the difference between a possum and an opossum?
Putting the letter ‘O’ in front of a word generally reverses its meaning, like proponent and opponent, position and opposition. Could the Opossum actually be the Anti-Possum? Suppose a possum meets an opossum, coming through the rye, do they explode like matter meeting anti-matter on Deep Space Nine?
Of course not. It turns out possums and opossums are pretty much the same animals, if you allow the fact that they’ve been separated by a hemisphere and 60 million years. The distinction between the two words is much akin to splitting hairs, but it’s generally agreed that “opossum” was the closest the Pilgrims could come to mastering the Algonquian word for this housecat-sized marsupial that is found commonly throughout the Americas.
Australian Possums, strictly speaking, as opposed to the American Opossum, refer to the 70 or so Australian tree-climbing marsupials. Far from being a nuisance, the possum is protected by law in Australia where they may not be killed nor collected, even if they’re living in your roof. To trap and release one requires a difficult-to-get permit and they must be released no more than 165 feet from the spot where they’re trapped. After you release them, you can race the possum back home. Possums are venerated by Australian Aborigines. Coats made from possum skins are handled like family heirlooms and passed on to subsequent generations, cherished as ancestral treasures.
Not so in New Zealand, just a thousand miles to the southeast where the possum was imported in 1837 from Australia in an attempt to start a fur industry. Without predators, and deft at ferreting out eggs, possum populations exploded on the smaller island. Today, the possum, along with another imported pest, the ermine, threaten the very survival of most of New Zealand’s exotic birds, including the iconic kiwi.
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Like their not-too-distant cousins, the kangaroo, the wallaby, and the possum, the American Opossum gives birth to large numbers of babies, dime-sized and blind, that must make their way into the mother’s pouch where only 13 of them may reside for the next four months. Originally, opossums were native to the eastern coast but they spread west as a food source during the great depression when recipes for “possum stew” were common in hobo camps.
When confronted by any threat, a frightened opossum faints. That’s it. That’s their defense. Silence. They fall over unconscious, lips pulled back, teeth bared, frothing at the mouth while secreting a horrible foul smell from their nether regions, a defense tactic they looted from the U.S. Congress. Opossums can be flipped over and carried around in this stinking but comatose state, only to rouse after several moments, look around and decide, well, since they’re still alive, they might as well get back to business. Oddly, they are unique in that they are largely impervious to rattlesnake and other pit viper venom.
So what’s an opossum that a possum isn’t? Turns out not much at all, but over here, we call them opossums.