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
{ 158 comments… add one }
  • fortune faychild May 28, 2016, 2:51 pm | Link

    Iran across a link on american opossums and horse disease, http://www.aaep.org/info/horse-health?publication=752

    They don’t run off the roof rats which are much bigger and more aggressive than norway rats, They certainly do make enough racket on the porch and roof. When i had 2 dogs, the dogs wanted no part of them, when they play dead they actually make themselves smell, ewww. I’ve only had to relocate a couple three this year. They make huge poops in our fenced in yard, and if caught in humane trap or get inside it’s poop pee city!! One time one got into my studio sleeping loft, and wouldn’t come out of hiding. My cat insisted on sleeping under the covers when it was there, i put down cornstarch baby powder to track his movements, the footprints lead repeatedly over the top of my cat and i – i slept with head under covers too during his home invasion. Finally it some how lodged itself between the screen and window glass and i wasn’t about to open the window and let it back in, so i had to get someone to go up on the ladder outside and cut the screen so it could escape. i relocate then on the other side of a river which has a bridge but it doesn’t seem they’ve figured out to get across the bridge and return. They are very adaptable and live almost everywhere, but short lived only a couple years.
    I’ve had many pet rats, pedigreed siamese (markings like siamese cats) ones, imported from sweden with very sweet dispositions, rats can be very loving and intelligent. mine were in petting zoo at the fair, on tv with humane society handlers who took them as visiting pets to old folks homes and even hospitals to cheer people up. Unfortunately they only live 3 or 4 years. My original stud from sweden lived longer, maybe due to the fact her drank a bottle cap of brandy every day (the others prefered beer sometimes drinking at tolerant bars, one would go beep beep vocalized when she needed to go potty, she even washed her little hands and face in the sink) Opossums just don’t seem to have the kind of smarts that takes to domesticating. Well everything (almost) is cute as a baby, even us and opossums. Yeah down south i remember people eating them but only when really poor and hungry, people say they are greasy and not very tasty.. But then there are folks who eat raw fish sushi on purpose, If you see me eating sushi it will be on a lifeboat.

  • Andrew Holliday May 28, 2016, 10:00 am | Link

    You’ve really only mentioned one type of possum. There’s more than 20 species in Australia. By far the most common in suburbia is the brushtail (just don’t tell the Kiwi’s they’re cute; in NZ they’re the number one pest in the country!), and on the cuteness scale the brushtail is a definite last. In suburbia the ringtail possum is also pretty common (and makes a more pleasant noise as well). You might post a few pictures of those for comparison….

  • Alexandra May 28, 2016, 6:54 am | Link

    No!! Our American Opossums are adorable! That’s an awful picture dude, why don’t you try and find a normal one and not one that is in fear and scared. I take care of baby opossums and adult opossums at the wildlife center I volunteer for and they are the sweetest and completely docile. Maybe try to add more information about them on here???

  • Johnny Panic May 13, 2016, 1:17 am | Link

    I kind of like our North American opossums. They are cute in their own way, and while they can look threatening, they are not very aggressive at all and, besides their teeth-showing hiss, are good natured (on a related note: just be thankful you don’t have fishers that are reclusive, but common here in New England -they have a scream that makes you think someone is being murdered in the woods behind your house). Sadly, they only have a lifespan of about three years, so they mature and reproduce pretty quickly. Also you might find this interesting: opossum is an Algonquin word meaning “white beast”.

    • BobinOz May 13, 2016, 5:46 pm | Link

      Mixed opinions about North American opossums then, some say cute, like you Johnny, and Bob below says ugly and dumb. Whoever that was that gave them a name that means “white beast” probably didn’t think much of them either 🙂

      Apart from things like cane toads, cockroaches and mosquitoes, I think pretty much all wildlife is here for us to enjoy.

      I’ve never heard of fishers, but when I was a kid all the cats in the neighbourhood used to gather on the shed roof of the old lady who lived next door at night time and make sounds like children being tortured.

      Made it quite difficult for me to get to sleep, I can tell you.

  • Bob May 9, 2016, 2:01 pm | Link

    I’m not going to look up a timeline of his travels, but its possible that Banks never saw an American possum in the flesh, I’d guess the best he would have seen would have been a taxidermied example, and at worst, one of those drawings in books by naturalists of the time, so that might explain why he thought there was a resemblance.

    But this is speculation, for all I know he could have kept a family of the things on his estate in England.

  • 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 🙂

    • Bob May 9, 2016, 1:56 pm | Link

      No they arent. They’re ugly, dumb things, and they do stuff like crawl up in your walls and damage pipes. I had one do that this winter. Frankly. its a bit of a wonder they’ve manged to survive, raccoons out compete them on every front.

  • 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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