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Possum vs. Opossum: What’s the Difference?

Rachael Gerkensmeyer

Many people think that possums and opossums are the same things, but this is not the case. The two are different animals, though they do have a few things in common. For example, they are both marsupials and scavenger carnivores. They even look similar, but not enough that you cannot tell them apart.

Their names are not interchangeable, even though they often are due to people being unfamiliar with these animals. So, to clear things up, let’s take a close look at the differences between possums and opossums so they are never called the wrong names again. Here are the key differences that you should know about.divider-multipet

Visual Differences

Image Credit: (Left) ambarculhane, Pixabay (Right) Jalynn, Pixabay

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They Live in Different Places

possum eating_hirisflower, Pixabay
Image Credit: hirisflower, Pixabay

The possum and opossum live in different places throughout the world. Opossums only live in North America, specifically the United States and the southern areas of Canada. Possums can be found living in China, New Guinea, and Australia. Both types of animals like to build dens to live out of sticks, leaves, and even rocks. However, the possum is typically more resourceful and can turn any type of terrain into a safe home.

Their Tails Are Different

Opossum
Image Credit: Jalynn, Pixabay

A big visual difference between possums and opossums is their tail. Both tails are long, but the possum’s tail is thick and furry, like a squirrel’s tail. An opossum’s tail is thin and free of hair, almost like a rat’s tail. An opossum’s tail is a little shorter than that of a possum. The difference between the tails is obvious at first glance. The problem is that most people never have an opportunity to visually compare the two side by side because they live in different parts of the world.

They Are Different Sizes

possum_Lea Smith_Pixabay
Image Credit: Lea Smith, Pixabay

There are multiple subspecies of possums, so their size can greatly vary. Some possums, like the brushtail variety, weigh in at about 5 pounds. Others are as heavy as 20 pounds and as light as 1 ounce. Only a couple of subspecies of opossums exist, and they all typically weigh in at between 9 and 13 pounds. Possums vary in length so much that there is no specific range to refer to. Opossums are usually less than 3 feet long, with the tail included.

Their Bodies Are Different

Another difference between possums and opossums to take note of is their coats. While opossums have pointed heads and thick, coarse fur, possums have rounded heads and soft fur. The opossum has small black eyes and dark gray coats that sometimes give way to white markings. Possums have large round eyes and coats of fur that could be brown, black, or gray. The legs of a possum are usually a little bit thicker and shorter than an opossum’s legs too.

They Belong to Different Orders

There are 12 different marsupial orders to help distinguish the more than 250 species of marsupials that are in existence. Brushtail possums are part of a medium to large-sized marsupial order called Phalangeriformes. Other types of possums are part of the Diprotodontia order, along with other large marsupials such as koala bears and kangaroos. Opossums are assigned to the Didelphimorphia order which represents the largest-sized marsupials in the Western part of the world.

They React Differently to Danger

These two types of marsupials react quite differently when danger is perceived. Possums are thought to play dead when they feel threatened, just like the saying, “play possum,” goes. However, it is actually the opossum that rolls up into a ball and stays still to protect itself from predators and perceived dangers. This protective stance can last up to 2 hours, depending on the situation. Possums are not as afraid of strange people and things, so they tend to actually come up to investigate rather than run away or protect themselves.

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In Conclusion

There are quite a few differences between possums and opossums, and understanding these can make it easier to decipher the two from one another. Depending on where you live in the world, you will always know whether you come across a possum or opossum based on the differences that we have outlined here. Have you ever seen one of these creatures in person? If so, what was the experience like?

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Featured Image Credit: (Top) bonthenet, Pixabay, (Bottom) Jalynn, Pixabay

Rachael Gerkensmeyer

Rachael has been a freelance writer since 2000, in which time she has had an opportunity to research and write about many different topics while working to master the art of fusing high-quality content with effective content marketing strategies. She is an artist at heart and loves to read, paint, and make jewelry in her spare time. As a vegan, Rachael is obsessed with helping animals in need both in her community and anywhere in the world where she feels she can make a difference. Animals also happen to be her favorite topic to write about! She lives off the grid in Hawaii with her husband, her garden, and her rescue animals including 5 dogs, a cat, a goat, and dozens of chickens.