Hope, A Kiawah Opossum

Stop by the Nature Center these days and you will find a flurry of animal activity. Between snakes slithering, alligators hissing and baby quail hatching, there is always something new and exciting to view inside of Heron Park’s facility dedicated to the natural world. One of the newest and most loveable critters to find its way inside our walls is a baby opossum named Hope. Hope was found on Johns Island by one of the Nature Center staff members, completely alone and abandoned. Hope’s story is a familiar one for many infant opossums in the wild.

Hope is a Virginia Opossum, one of the most common mammals found throughout most of the United States. This highly adaptable species remains relatively successful despite the massive destruction of habitat due to human influences. Opossums are an extremely unique species of marsupial; in fact they are the only marsupial known to live in North America. Typically marsupials like koalas and kangaroos are famous for residing “down under”, but no one told the opossum, whose species was first discovered off the shores of Virginia upon European settlement. What makes marsupials distinguishable is the presence of a pouch used in rearing their young. When opossums procreate, they give birth to around 13 kidney bean-sized babies who immediately crawl into the tiny pouch near the mother’s stomach. They will remain in the pouch until they are strong enough to latch onto the mother’s back for travel and safety while developing. Unfortunately for Hope, she suffers from a deformity on her hind legs and was not strong enough to latch onto her mother. This is most likely the reason she was abandoned.

Virginia Opossums are known for a few adaptations that help them survive as well as a few limitations that often make them victims of tragedy. Opossums have a keen sense of smell to accompany their fierce appetite. The semi-arborial opossum is an omnivore much like humans, often climbing trees to snack on berries, plants, rodents, nuts and worms. They are capable of eating almost anything, including carrion that has already been killed by something else. While their sense of smell is excellent at finding these pungent delights, they rely very little on their poor eyesight. Because of this, the nocturnal opossum is often drawn to roadsides attracted by road kill and, in turn, do not see cars coming before they are struck themselves. For this reason, driving more cautiously during the evening hours and keeping a sharp eye out for opossums on dark roads, may prove beneficial to this amazing creature.

The opossum is rarely a victim of common mammalian diseases like rabies because they maintain a very low body temperature making it almost impossible for them to become rabid. However, an unsteady or unhealthy diet does cause metabolic bone disease in opossums quite frequently.

While Hope was lucky enough to be found and cared for, most opossums in her position would not last very long in the wild. In fact, opossums in general have an extremely short life-span. Most wild individuals will only reach 2 years old, while captive opossums like Hope might make it to 5 years. Since we found her at such a young age and in relatively good health, she has a chance to be with us for a long time. Stop by the nature center to say hello to Hope and perhaps you will gain a newfound appreciation for these fantastic marsupials.