The Story Of Wild Animals:
Story Of The Raccoon
Story Of The Cobego
Story Of The Gazelle
Story Of The Chameleon
Story Of The Fossa
Story Of The Walrus
Story Of The Mole
Story Of The Pangolin
Story Of The Opossum
Story Of The Caffre Cat
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Story Of The Opossum
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A favorite sport in the southern part of the United States is "possum hunting," and is particularly popular with the colored population.
The time to hunt opossums is a bright moonlight night, and the best locality, a marsh or swamp where persimmon trees grow. The hunter will need only a good dog. As soon as the opossum finds out that a dog is on its trail it takes to the trees, and usually it is but a short time after striking a trail until the 'possum is "treed." Then it can be easily secured by taking hold of its tail, which is prehensile, and which the animal wraps around any object that touches it.
The flesh of the opossum is coarse and fat, but it is esteemed a great delicacy by the negroes.
There are about twenty-four varieties of the opossum, but only one of them is found in the northern half of America, all the others being confined to the southern half.
All the opossums, with the exception of the water-opossum, inhabit trees. They spend the day concealed among the foliage and are active through-out the night. The opossums take the place in America of the insect eating animals of the Old World. They are naturally forest-loving animals but a few are found on the pampas of Argentina, where they have adapted them-selves to a ground life. In those species in which the pouch is poorly developed or wanting, the young are carried upon the back of their female parent, where they maintain their position by curling their tails round that of their mother, which is bent forward for that purpose.
On first catching sight of the opossum, you would think it stupid; but a very short observation convinces you that it is as full of tricks as the most cunning of foxes. One of its favorite devices, when it is surprised by the hunter, and finds escape impossible, is to fall to the ground, apparently life-less, as if mortally wounded by its pursuer's gun. If you think it really dead, and turn aside your gaze, or throw it carelessly into your game-bag, it watches for a favorable opportunity, and is off and away when, of course, you are least prepared. In this stratagem has originated the popular phrase of "playing 'possum." Touch its head ever so lightly so lightly that the touch would not kill a fly and it immediately stretches out its limbs as stiff as a corpse ; in a word it "plays 'possum." In this situation you may torture it, cut its skin, almost flay it, and it will not move a single muscle. Its eyes grow dull and glazed as if covered with a film, for it has no eyelids to protect its organs of sight. It will allow you even to throw it to your dogs, so complete is its acting, and so consummate its power of deception ; but forget it only for a moment, and it opens its dull, glazed eyes, seizes its opportunity, and turns tail in the most rapid manner.
In size the opossum equals a small dog, measuring about three and a quarter feet in total length; the head and body measuring twenty-four inches, and the tail sixteen. Its fur is of a grayish-white color, slightly shaded with yellow, and varied here and there by long white hairs with brownish tips. On the limbs these hairs are so numerous that the whole fur assumes a brown hue. It feeds upon young rabbits, mice, rats, reptiles of various kinds, insects, eggs, and young birds; and occasionally it makes a descent upon the poultry-yard, and regales itself with fowl or chicken. In these depredations it displays an astonishing amount of cunning and perseverance.
In Merian's opossum there is no true pouch, and the place of that curious structure is only indicated by a fold of skin, so that during the infancy of its young the mother is obliged to have recourse to that singular custom, which has gained for it the title of "dorsigerus," or back-bearing.
At a very early age the young opossums are shifted to the back of their mother, where they cling tightly to her fur with their little hand-like feet, and further secure themselves by twining their own tails round that of the parent.
Many other species of opossums are in the habit of carrying their young upon their backs, even though they may be furnished with a well-developed pouch, but in the pouchless opossums the young are placed upon the back at a very early age, and are retained there for a considerable period.
The fore feet are armed with strong and sharp claws, which can find their way into every little crevice in the bark, or make one for themselves if necessary, and so obtain a firm foothold even upon an upright tree-trunk. The tail is wonderfully prehensile, and is so strong that the opossum can curl it tightly round a branch and hang suspended by its aid alone, even when its young ones are clinging to its body, and so adding largely to its weight. When plucking fruit from a tree, the opossum may often be seen thus suspended from the bough above the clusters which it is attacking, so that the fore paws are left free to gather the fruit and to carry it to the mouth.
The philander and the woolly opossum have a brown streak running down the middle of the face.
The murine opossum which ranges from Central Mexico to Brazil is no larger than a common mouse, and wears a coat of soft red fur. It lives entirely upon insects.
The water-opossum or yapock differs from all other members of the family in having the hind-toes webbed, and the presence of a large growth on the outer side of each fore-foot, giving the appearance of a sixth claw. This animal ranges from Guatemala to Brazil, and is distinguished by its peculiar color and love of water. The fur is short and close, and the long tail naked and scaly for the greater part of its length. The head and body measure about fourteen inches in length, and the tail about fifteen and a half inches. The ground-color of the fur is light gray, upon which there is a blackish brown stripe running down the middle of the back, and expanding into large blotches on the shoulders, the middle of the back, the loins, and rump. The face has also blackish markings, with an imperfect whitish crescent above the eyes ; while there is a certain amount of dark tint on the outer surfaces of the limbs, the under-parts being pure white. The female possesses a complete pouch. In habits the yapock closely resembles an otter, to which group of animals it was, indeed, referred by the earlier naturalists. Its food consists of small fish and other water animals.