Possums and Opossums: Australia and America. All Explained.

I had an email from a reader called Dottianne the other day, and she has rightly pointed out that the pictures of the possums over at my post called Strange Australian Back Garden Beastie Sound Explained are not, how can I break this to you, possums.

They are both “opossums”. Click the link above, check them out and then come back here and I’ll explain all.

What’s with the ‘O’?

Here’s the big surprise, well, for me anyway. The American possums are actually called opossums, scientific name, Didelphimorphia. But for some reason, they are more commonly referred to as possums, just like our native Australian species.

But our Australian possums are (scientific name) Phalangeridae. Both are marsupials, but that’s about it. Other than that, they are not really related at all. But I wasn’t the only one who was fooled by all this; there are still plenty of websites out there that claim possums and opossums are the same. They are not.

It seems that all the confusion was started by Capt Cook’s botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, who named the Australian animal a possum because it “looked like” the American opossum. Luckily, he didn’t travel north, otherwise our crocodiles would be called alligators.

The big difference though, for me, and you will not find this information in too many encyclopaedias or wildlife books, is that the American possum has pointy teeth and looks scary and the Australian possum is a real cutie. First, check out the two opossums on my previous post if you haven’t already, see above.

Now checkout my Australian Possum Parade, assembled following a raid over at flickr……

Possum Image above courtesy of andyroo64
Another possumImage above courtesy of Bedwetting in Australia
ginger possumImage above courtesy of ekai
possum pictureImage above courtesy of johnvw
standing possumImage above courtesy of photolaps\
Another standing possumImage above courtesy of small
cute possumImage above courtesy of wiccked
wandering possumImage above courtesy of wollombi

I still have my possum living somewhere in the garden. I hear him a lot, I see his pooh pooh a lot, but I very rarely see him. He is very reclusive. I’ve only ever seen him once and you can read about that experience in the same blog post that has the pictures of the American opossums.

Shame, I’d have liked to get to know him.

Oh, and just in case you didn’t check it out, here’s an American opossum…

Not So Cute

Image Courtesy of AndrewKantor

Playing dead

Update March 2016

I’ve just been informed by Sam in the comments below that American opossums play dead when threatened. Sam wondered if Australian possums do the same? No, they don’t, they make a sound, you can listen to it on the following post:

Who’s possums are the cutest?

Update April 2016

Just added a video post you may also like:

You may also like:

Buy or Rent Property in Australia
{ 151 comments… add one }
  • Tiffany Hunt April 28, 2016, 5:18 am | Link

    Our opossums are actually quite cute and very similar to possums. Check out the photo on Wiki.


    • BobinOz April 28, 2016, 6:08 pm | Link

      Ha ha, you think the Virginia opossum inhabiting a piano is cute? Or the hissing opossum? And the opossum “playing dead”? Well, each to his own I suppose, but I’m sticking with Australian possums being the cutest 🙂

  • Kali Blaze April 3, 2016, 4:14 pm | Link

    If Banks had found your crocodiles, I think they’d still be crocs – do keep in mind, we have BOTH alligators and crocodiles in the Americas (actually, have both within the US). In fact, I believe we’re the only country that has both; we definitely have the only known place in the world where both have natural habitats in the same area (South Florida, if you’re curious).

    Not that I like either one – most reptiles give me the heebie-jeebies! (I was going to say they give me the willies, but it occurred to me that that has a slightly different meaning to you Aussies! I mean a creepy-crawly feeling, not, um, a certain portion of the male anatomy.)

    • BobinOz April 4, 2016, 5:14 pm | Link

      Yes, it does have a different meaning, you most definitely cannot say willies here in Australia.

      As for the alligator thing, when I originally wrote this post I was under the impression that you only had alligators in the US, but I do think somebody else somewhere in these comments did put me straight on that one as well. Didn’t know that the US was the only place in the world though that has both in natural habitats.

      Thanks for the info, Bob

      • Drew Snider April 4, 2016, 11:53 pm | Link

        Oh, great…there’s a popular cafe in Victoria Canada called “Willie’s” and now I can’t look at it in the same way.

        I digress (even before I started)…I, too, was under the impression that the US only had alligators. When I was in Florida a few years ago, I encountered what I thought was a croc (pointy nose, as opposed to the rounded nose ‘gators have), but when I showed pictures to my friends, one said “No, that’s an alligator. Crocodiles live in Africa – gators are in the US”. I believed him – he was, after all, a high school teacher.

        About the same cause for credibility, I suppose, as for the person who explained that the difference between possums and opossums was the latter’s tail is shaped like an “o”. (See elsewhere in this lengthening thread.)

        • BobinOz April 5, 2016, 8:45 pm | Link

          Well I think some of us have learnt a few new things with the recent comments here, some of it is interesting and some of it we probably don’t want to think about too much.


  • sam March 25, 2016, 2:23 pm | Link

    Awwww American opossums (tlacuaches) are very cute actually!!! you just happened to found a kind of scary picture LOL, I have seen them since I was a kid, they are wonderful creatures, they are cute to me at least HEHE.
    I read here that someone says they look like rats (maybe it was you, anyway…) the Aztec legend says that they were fluffly silver haired creatures with a wonderful tail, but in ancient times when men didn’t know how to produce fire yet, one day a thunderstorm lighted up in fire a few trees and the titans of the mountains took the fire and kept it as their precious treasure. Humans realized the titans didn’t wanted to share it, even though humans were freezing, and so there was a meeting among humans and animals to agree on how to take the fire away from the Titans, no one wanted to attempt a visit to them for fear until the opossum offered to go and get the fire. Everyone laughed since he was a small creature, what could he do? … well, he played a trick to the Titans and thanks to his ability and small size, took the fire torch they were keeping in his tail and ran away with it to give it to his brothers the other animals and humans. The opossum gave the torch to the humans and they spread the knowledge about fire with time, but he forever lost his beautiful fur and tail. So that is how the opossums saved the men and to remember the hero, they keep their rat-like tail through generations 😀

    • BobinOz March 28, 2016, 10:02 pm | Link

      Gosh, our possums may look cuter, but your opossums are definitely smarter. I’m sure our possums would never have thought to play a trick like that, well, obviously they didn’t, they still have their tails.

      It’s a great story Sam, thanks for sharing, maybe I should write a follow-up post comparing possums and opossums for brains this time, not looks 🙂

      • Sam March 28, 2016, 11:15 pm | Link

        Hehehe, that is the legend how I remember it from when I was little, I am glad you enjoyed it. I forgot to mention, the trick the opossum played to the titans is to play dead while they were awake and waited until night when they were sleep to steal the torch xD … do Australian possums also play dead? That would be interesting, the ones here do, well at least they look like they do but I believe the poor things actually faint under the stress. Here is a good little article about it: http://animals.mom.me/opossums-playing-dead-5274.html

        Well, have a good week!

        • BobinOz March 29, 2016, 6:59 pm | Link

          No, they don’t. If you see an Australian possum ‘playing dead’ it is, ahem, really dead. I’m glad you asked though, because it gave me the idea of adding a little update to the foot of the above post.

          You can find out what our possums do when they feel threatened.

  • Nurrungar June 7, 2015, 10:32 pm | Link

    I think you should remember that this is an island continent and has been so for a very long time. Most of our animals have analogues in other parts of the world but that is what Darwinism is about, certain ecological niches have to be filled. For grazers we have the macropods, aquatic mammals the platypus, top carnivorous predators have sadly been eliminated by 1936 leaving just man and the ground breakers such as pigs are the two species of wombat. Problem is the pigs are here too and have gone feral just like cats and horses.

    • BobinOz June 8, 2015, 8:21 pm | Link
      • BobinOz June 8, 2015, 8:24 pm | Link
        • liz bell August 15, 2015, 12:40 pm | Link

          OM I am a wildlife rescuer with Wildlife Victoria and I have a passion for all wildlife,, especially marsupials. Possums, especially ringtail possums, are sweet, motherly, darling them from things that respond well to humans and just want to co-exist. I rescue them from disaster weekly and each week I love their tenacity and strength and innocence even more. The are sweet and loving. If only everybody could see that. It’s not just exotic animals that need saving.,

          • BobinOz August 16, 2015, 7:16 pm | Link

            I agree with you Liz, possums are little beauties. Some people do say they can get aggressive, I’ve not noticed that in any of the possums I’ve come across. Keep up the good work you’re doing to help these wonderful animals.

          • Sam March 30, 2016, 1:24 am | Link

            Oh so true!!! You would love our opposums here in America, also misunderstood creatures :'(

            When I was a girl I would see them around in our backyard almost every day and nowadays is very difficult to spot one. People tend to think of them as disgusting creatures (because of their rat like tail) but they actually eat many plagues around here and they do not get rabies (or at least I have been told that). I wish I could post a picture of a pretty opossum family here so you would see :3

            Click here for cute opossums picture

            • BobinOz March 30, 2016, 5:57 pm | Link

              Yes, I suppose those ones are quite cute 🙂

            • Kali Blaze April 3, 2016, 4:08 pm | Link

              Opossums do occasionally carry rabies, but it’s unusual. Their body temperature is lower than is the norm for mammals, so the virus isn’t able to reproduce as effectively, which lets their immune systems wipe out the infections most of the time.

              But it does happen now and again, so an opossum that displays unusual behavior, especially aggression, is something to be concerned about (and possibly get the shots, if your skin has been broken and you can’t catch the opossum to have its rabies status verified).

              • Sam April 3, 2016, 6:16 pm | Link

                Oh that is good to know! Thank you 😀

  • Patrick June 4, 2015, 1:06 am | Link

    Poor American Opposum! There’s a family living next door in my a very unlikely urban habitat…The Bronx in New York City. The neighbor’s light motion-sensor trips when they come to feed on the copious bowls of cat food that she leaves out (Sure that you have “THOSE” types in Oz as well….cat people neighbors obsessed with feeding the ferals) Anyhoo, I digress…I love watching our possum (BTW No one here refers tro them as “opposum” except snarky know-it-all types). They are an misunderstood animal. They are an indigenous species that do not carry rabies, have no violent tendencies, despite their threatening sharp teeth, and sadly have one of the shortest life expectancies (2 years max) as they’re just not agressive creatures. Australian possums are just straight up adorable, but ours are sweeties with a bad-rap due to their intimidating appearance! I wouldn’t go so far as to attempt to make one a pet as some of your American followers have posted…but they’re pretty righteous!

    • BobinOz June 4, 2015, 8:57 pm | Link

      A rousing speech in defence of US possums Patrick, you are beginning to make me feel a little guilty for some of the things I’ve said about them.

      I’m sure they are very pleasant creatures and they cause nobody any harm. As you say, they probably get a bad press because of their appearance, but you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. So I am prepared to accept that your US possums or opossums of very nice creatures indeed.

      It’s just the ours are cuter 🙂

      • Drew Snider June 5, 2015, 1:24 am | Link

        Methinks you’ve been influenced — as I have been — by the Pogo comic strip, which ran from 1948 until 1972 or so (http://boingboing.net/2011/12/05/pogo-the-complete-daily-sunday-comic-strips-exclusive-preview.html). The lead character, Pogo, was an opossum — vernacularized to “possum”, of course — and he was, indeed, quite endearing. Mind you, so was his closest mate, Albert the Alligator, and his wannabe love interest, Hepzibah — a skunk.

        Do you have skunks in Australia, Bob? I didn’t think so, and I can tell you this: devoid though they are of slashing teeth and aggressive nature like their cousins, the ferrets, weasels and wolverines, NO ONE would try to introduce that species anywhere. Sad.

        • BobinOz June 7, 2015, 8:31 pm | Link

          It’s a no and a no Drew. No, I’ve not been influenced by Pogo, never seen that comic strip before in my life.

          And no, we do not get skunks in Australia and actually I’ve never seen one in my life and therefore obviously never smelt one. They don’t smell nice though, so I’ve heard, and it’s their downfall really. They can be as friendly as you like but no one’s going to want to cuddle them. 🙂

    • Laura November 16, 2015, 10:12 pm | Link

      By “those types” I hope you mean human beings that do not think that animals should suffer because human beings have allowed cats to escape and breed all over the world.
      Or do you mean “those types” because you think animals suffering from starvation is awesome and you want see them get thin and die. Better yet, on your porch so you can really watch their pain and hunger. (just so long as they don’t leave a mess)

    • Chris November 24, 2015, 10:08 am | Link

      Hey Patrick, I say “opossum” (in NYC where I live, but I am from Brazil) and I am not a snarky or know-it-all type, as accused. I have rescued and raised them (properly with opossum milk replacement and balanced diet to prevent diseases such as MBD, etc…), than soft-releasing into the wild… working from knowledge and from the heart. Don’t judge people just because of a vogal, at the end, we all “say tomato” differently.

  • Drew Snider May 16, 2015, 10:51 am | Link

    “Cute” is definitely a subjective term, shaynuuhh … those little “rock people” in “Galaxy Quest” were cute, too …
    BTW, up here in Canada, they’re *just now* seeing “The Water Diviner” for the first time … so considering my wife, some friends and I spent New Year’s Eve picnicking on a bluff overlooking the Great Southern Ocean AND one of the locations used in the movie, *then* saw the flick in Sydney a couple of days later … we feel naturally superior to everyone else.
    (I nominate Russell for Best Use of Cricket Bat …)

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