Every night in America, there are heroes patrolling our streets, keeping them safe and clean. They don’t do it for the fame or the glory. They don’t even do it for the soft, internal glow of altruism. They just do it because they’re Opossums and they’re hungry.
As the only marsupial native to the contiguous US, the Virginia Opossum is a stellar specimen that frankly deserves a lot more of our respect. They’re open-minded omnivores that eat ticks, slugs, roadkill, and the pizza your neighbor Greg left out after his pool party. They promote biodiversity by eating fruit and pooping out the seeds. It’s almost impossible for them to contract rabies, as they have a lower body temperature than most mammals and make poor hosts for the virus.
They also have their own special name, and you can annoy people at parties by correcting them when they drop the “o” and just call these critters a “possum.” Opossums are in the Americas, while possums are found in Australia. While they’re both marsupials, they’re members of different families. Opossums received their common English name through a game of colonizer telephone between an Algonquin-speaking tribe in what is now Virginia and John Smith. (Yes, that John Smith.) Linguists believe the original term would have been something close to wápahshum.
Best of all, the mighty opossum has inspired truly great folklore! Like the myth that they have sex by putting an opossum penis in an opossum nose. Or maybe an opossum ear. No matter what hole the sperm goes in, though, each version of the myth ends the same – with partially-developed babies shooting out of the nostrils and into the pouch with a hearty sneeze.
It’s unclear where this myth originated. The timing of historical records, however, along with similarities to European folklore about bears and weasels seems to suggest that it was a belief imported from England.
It’s also unclear how this particular myth got attached to opossums specifically, though there are some potential biological clues. The opossum has a bifurcated, or forked, penis. And a two-headed penis might imply the need for two holes in which to place it. While the opossum does have a vagina that splits into two separate canals, only one hole is visible externally. If you’re unwilling to do an opossum dissection, the nostrils are the only two, neighboring holes you’re going to find.
Additionally, female opossums are often seen licking inside and around their pouch at about the time the babies appear. If you’re under the impression that she’s had nose sex, I suppose it’s not completely implausible to think she might be rooting around in there, ready to blow out a whole bunch of babies. In actuality, the opossum is likely licking a path for her newly birthed and blind babies to follow as they crawl to her pouch. She could also be licking her irritated skin or nipples soon after they arrive and have begun nursing.
To be fair to those who subscribed to this myth, opossum reproduction is still pretty weird. I mean, there’s the bifurcated penis. And the fact that the opossum testicles sit in front of, rather than behind, the penis. The sperm of the opossum actually pair up, separating only when they get to the oviducts. In “The Opossum: It’s Amazing Story,” the sperm pair’s movement is described romantically as, “reminiscent of watching a seagull in flight.”
The female reproductive tract is also unique. Not only does it include two vaginal canals, but also two uteri! But wait – there’s more. When opossums are ready to give birth, a whole new vaginal or pseudo-vaginal canal is formed! Different sources contradict on whether or not the opossum’s pseudo-vagina disappears and reappears for each litter, or if it remains after the first litter is born. Either way, opossums are just rich with vaginal canals.
Much of what we know about opossum reproduction today comes from the work of Dr. Carl Hartman. At the beginning of his career, he worked at the University of Texas. As opossums were plentiful in the area, he would trap his own for study. Later, his groundbreaking research with rhesus monkeys helped establish when ovulation occurs in primates.
Marsupials, including the noble opossum, still hold a valuable place in reproduction research. While humans and opossums are both mammals, they’re fairly far apart from an evolutionary perspective. Research that compares marsupials, like opossums, and placental mammals, like mice or humans, can provide us with valuable information about evolution, genetics, and the impact our environment has on our development.
Additionally, marsupial development is often just easier to study. Placental mammals hide out in the uterus for a good portion of their early development. Marsupials, however, have the courtesy to just do a bit of developing internally and then head out to do the rest in a conveniently accessible pouch. For example, primary sex characteristics, like genitalia, don’t develop in marsupials until they are already in the pouch. This makes them useful models for understanding how environmental factors, such as hormones, might affect the development of these characteristics.
Need more opossum in your life? Try MEpearlA, The Possum Lady of YouTube.