Possums and Opossums: Australia and America. All Explained.

by BobinOz on February 26, 2010

in Australia's Bad Things

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 by andyroo64 Possums and Opossums: Australia and America. All Explained.Image above courtesy of andyroo64
possum by Bedwetting in Australia Possums and Opossums: Australia and America. All Explained.Image above courtesy of Bedwetting in Australia
possum by ekai Possums and Opossums: Australia and America. All Explained.Image above courtesy of ekai
possum by johnvw Possums and Opossums: Australia and America. All Explained.Image above courtesy of johnvw
possum by photolaps Possums and Opossums: Australia and America. All Explained.Image above courtesy of photolaps\
possum by small Possums and Opossums: Australia and America. All Explained.Image above courtesy of small
possum by wiccked Possums and Opossums: Australia and America. All Explained.Image above courtesy of wiccked
possum by wollombi Possums and Opossums: Australia and America. All Explained.Image 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…

24359966 819581de1c o 1024x817 Possums and Opossums: Australia and America. All Explained.

Not So Cute

Image Courtesy of AndrewKantor

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{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

COLIN N BURNS July 31, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Well, the Aussie Phalangeridae Nocturnal are a feature in backyards too. I don’t mind them around nor the sound they make deep into the night even when I’m halfway into a gap betwixt wanting to sleep and the verge of snoozing. Why? because I’m deaf!. But what bothers me about them is that they abandoned their fallen long dead but now last advanced stage of decaying tree home and instead choose to squat (without paying rent) into the space between the roof and ceiling of my house!. And they seem to make a racket every night there like ‘hardnosed drunken idiots at the bar come pub closing hours’, or were like having a ‘rowdy convention in the name of war against their worst enemy the house cat!’.

Oh yeah!, I now hear them up there every night now!. And wot’s more, they p*ss wood-carcenogenic urine everywhere up there, gradually causing the ceiling wood to rot over time before a piece of it collapsed and landed on the top edge of my soup bowl, literally flipping the hot soup all over my face at the table!. As l looked up in excruciating pain through one slightly closed eye I saw two of the blighters sneering down – with a kooky expression – at me as if they’re uttering a “tee hee heh heh!” attitude with their bulbous scary-looking illuminous eyes through that smelly p*ss stinking dark abyss of a hole where that piece of rotted wood broke off. What were they thinking? a “tee-hee heh heh”?.
Eh?, sorry possums, but l’m not a cat. Since ya all won’t pay up damages anyway l’m gonna catch ya all and relocate ya all somewhere fifty miles away to Woop Woop behind the Black Stump, and then say to ya all ” Now, ya all listen up, my house is’nt a tree, right?, …..tah tah!.”
Don’t get me wrong, l love wildlife, you don’t blame wildlife, it was Land Developers and Woodgetters who took – and still taking away – their natural beloved habitats in the first place!.


BobinOz August 3, 2010 at 12:17 am

Hi Colin

I can’t help thinking you’ve got the rough end of the stick here. You appear to have bogan possum’s around your way but I feel a duty to explain to my good readers that you can’t tarnish all possums with the same brush.

Many of the possums around our way don’t drink to excess at all and if they do, they seem to make their way home in a quiet and orderly fashion. It’s very rare that we hear them at all and it’s been a long time since I heard those strange beastie sounds in the night.

I got to agree with you on one thing though, they do seem to poo and pee wherever they are caught short. They could at least go behind a tree or if they are living in your house, make their way to the toilet like the rest of us.

Before considering relocating them to Woop Woop, have you tried to find out why they behave the way they do? Perhaps there is an underlying cause to their unruly behaviour.


Col B. (Colin Burns) August 5, 2010 at 12:39 am

Well, I suspect a neighbor’s cat with mangly scars all over its head and part of it’s ear looked bitten or torn off. I see the cat something like every two or three days in my yard and a few times going into the space going between the roof and ceiling of my abode but when l go nite- nite to sleep l actually hear a racket coming from said space. and the possibility in the Possums’s behaviour might be stemming from that, (fight hungry) Cat?.
I’ve seen Cats fight Possums before but neither wins a fight, and occurs only at night through to dark early morn’.
Both end up with scarred heads. A fight lasts sporadically within half an hour before the Cat had enough, but it is the Cat who would return again and again to have more spars with the powerful Possums. I know that cats like to invade on any other animals’s homes as long as it is’nt an animal (or rival) no bigger than its size. The possums always hold their territory but Cats are invaders (and hunters).
Bob, not many people rarely see and hear Possums
around. I agree.
I’ve seen around 11 of them over the course of my 13 years in far north coast NSW and at least five in my ten years in the mountains of Victoria and all in the wilds. I often stroll on moonlit nights into the forests, not to mention in urban areas with streetside trees. And presently in the space between the roof and the ceiling of my house. I tell you that the present ones in my roof are frequent noise makers so a Cat invasion may be the cause to their behaviour.
Anyway, another behaviour pattern in Possums is one of their natural but normal instincts, like scraping their tails (although l don’t hear that) on the ground which occurs when two male Possums eyeball each other off, be it territorial rights(?) or competition in the presence of a female.
Last time l saw a possum was a few months ago when one got trapped in my glass door loungeroom woodheater full of cold ashes (no fire or burning embers because it was in the middle of summer). Possum entered there via fluepipe in the chimney. I opened the glass heater door so it could walk out of the open house doors but it stubbornly would not leave the woodheater for half an hour. I put on heavy duty gloves and firmly got a hold on him/her and him/her did not struggle anymore once him/her is in my clasp. I took him/ her outside and released him/her. That one had a distinct scar on its snout and is one of the Possums in my roof.
You could say the woodheater drama is an unusual occurrence let alone a human actually handled one. hmm… that IS rare. Well l thought nothing of it. Given I’m a nature loving man l’ve seen plenty of other wildlifes in the bush scutter off from ‘Bush Boogeyman’ me anyway!.


BobinOz August 6, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Well, I knew possums were very territorial and would defend their patch, but I didn’t think cats would bother to try and take them on. I thought that mice and birds were more of their kind of thing. I am also surprised that the possum doesn’t win hands down, but then I suppose that depends on the cat and the possum involved.

I have now seen four possums since I moved here to Australia, which was about three years ago. Two of them were in two different friends back gardens after dark while we were outside drinking. Then I saw one when we went camping and of course, there was the possum that pressed his nose against my front room window whilst I was watching TV.

Sounds to me as though possums are possibly as curious as cats, which is probably why you had one end up inside your stove.

As for that tail scraping, I heard something like that and posted a video about it. Christine commented and said it is the sound of a possums growl, but maybe it was a dragging tail. Sounded more like a dragging sound to me than a growl. Have a listen if you get a chance, see what you think……

Strange beastie sound in my back garden


Chris July 21, 2011 at 1:10 pm

American opossums aren’t scary at all! Sure they have teeth a bit sharper than cats… but I have one sleepin’ on my belly right now! Her name’s cuddles, she’s hypoallergenic, and the worst part about her is she REFUSES to stop tickling my belly button with her nose. It’s quite horrible.


BobinOz July 22, 2011 at 9:40 pm

She sure sounds friendly enough, have you been feeding her? I haven’t managed to get too near any of ours, maybe I look scary!


vanessa April 10, 2012 at 4:55 am

bull! i think that my American possum is way cuter! ok, he’s got a few scraggly-looking teeth, but he’s much fuzzier :P


BobinOz April 10, 2012 at 10:35 pm

As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder :-)


Marisano April 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Hmm. I think your crocs would have been called “Ligators” (Ausigators?) had Joseph Banks traveled north.


BobinOz April 15, 2012 at 12:52 am

Lucky he didn’t then, I prefer crocs :-)


Marisano April 15, 2012 at 3:12 am

Yep. See what happens when you let botanists name animals?

But wait, I think I’ve got it: Ozigators! How beautifully terrible!


BobinOz April 16, 2012 at 8:50 pm

No, wouldn’t work in Australia. The Australians like is to put an “O” at the end of the word, not the beginning.

See An Australian Story.


Frank July 2, 2012 at 11:33 am

I live in a leafy part of Sydney where I’ve seen many generations of Brushtail and Ringtail possums flourish over the years. I’ve also owned a number of cats, but never has there been any sort of problem between the two. I suspect that cats may attempt to take baby Ringtail possums if hungry enough (Ringtails are much smaller than the Brushtails, for those who don’t know) but in my experience they are never silly enough to mess with Brushtails. I’ve watched the cats come face to face with Brushtails in the backyard numerous times, with never a hint of aggression either way. They just look at each other for a moment before continuing their business. As such, I’m very skeptical of those people who say they’ve seen cats and possums fight.


BobinOz July 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm

That surprises me a little, I would have imagined a possum would have had a go at a cat in its territory. But I’ve never seen a cat and a possum face-off, it’s good to hear they are prepared to ignore each other.

I’ve got a couple of cats here and I know I’ve got a possum around somewhere, there’s never been any trouble. Thanks Frank!


Lorraine August 7, 2012 at 3:18 pm

We are currently renting a house in the outskirts of Townsville, we have 2 or 3 possums living in our celing, they thunder across the roof at nite and lately the pee has come down the side of the inside of the wall. there are 2 or three ways they are getting in between the roof and celing and apparently part of the celing did colapse a couple of years ago. we would like to move them on but dont know if it is up to the landlord or us to do it. It is a very old house and to get on the roof maybe a bit of a problem. If there is anyone out there that can shed some light on our little problems let me know, we dont want to end up with possums on our bed when the foof caves in. thank you Lorraine at the above email


BobinOz August 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm

I would have thought it is the responsibility of your landlord to pay the cost of dealing with your possum problem. Possum removal is a bit of a skill as they are very territorial and hate been relocated. But it should not be your problem, I’d speak to your landlord. What ever solution you go for, blocking those entry points is important otherwise your possums, or different possums will be back.


Michael August 12, 2012 at 6:03 am

There is a Opossum in my backyard constantly (American). It is single handedly the scariest and ugliest looking thing I have ever seen. My dog goes crazy barking at it, often chasing it around the yard. I dare not touch my dog for a solid few hours in fear that it touched that ugly thing. The grossest part is its long and big rat like tail.


BobinOz August 13, 2012 at 1:01 am

Well there you go. Thank you for that confirmation Michael, sounds to me as though you are backing up my theory that American opossums are just not cute.

Yours sounds downright scary!

If you can snap a picture of it, I’ll stick it on this post, maybe we can have an ugliest opossum contest?


BG September 13, 2012 at 12:07 am

Joseph Banks and Captain James Cook certainly made it as far North as Cooktown Australia (he just HAD to go there) and the site of the Town of 1770. They went to 1770 in 1770 – surprise! They also visted the present site of Keppel Sands, North of Rockhampton, where they explored Pumpkin Creek, the home of allegedly large alleged crocodiles. We do not know who made the allegations?


BobinOz September 13, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Well it wasn’t me :-)


Xm September 24, 2012 at 2:52 am

My dog Red has killed 2 opossums that got into his pin he sleeps in at night. This morning i was letting him out and found a baby one that he killed sometime in the night. It was kind of cute so i dug a hole and buried it :)


BobinOz September 24, 2012 at 6:13 pm

Well that was very kind of you.


kelf December 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm

north american opossums aren’t really scary in real life–your picture is of a terrified little baby –seriously that’s just kid–they get much bigger but the adults rarely hiss at humans (i’ve only seen injured or trapped adults hiss at humans), and even the babies, rarely are afraid enough to hiss at humans..they just scurry away from you. as babies and adolescents, i would say they are very ugly-cute, but once they are full grown they are just ugly and mostly blind–but they eat roaches which i view kindly given the giant palmetto bugs that plague the southern portion of this continent. there’s a big full grown one outside on my porch right now eating cat food actually and a baby one just fled–the youngsters are’t afraid of the adults though, they’ll fight for food regardless of how much smaller they are–pretty admirable in my book–tough little blokes. the nice thing about opossums is that their body temperature is too low to harbor rabies…so there’s that, plus the roaches-eating aspect to be thankful for–personally, it’s just hard for me as one opposable thumbed individual not to feel a wee bit of kinship with one of the only other oppossble thumbed species on the face of the planet, not matter how ugly–i guess that’s one reason i’m so fond of raccoons, they have hands–and are wicked smart…the wild life that is making it here is the smart kind–the raccoons, the coyotes, the bob cats, the squirrels, the blue jays, and the turkeys (smart but mean-ass mofos turkeys are–you ever see a full grown wild male turkey, run the other direction–it’s not that odd, they terrorize the city streets of boston…ben franklin is laughing in his grave for sure about that)…we’ve created a world where “natural selection” is strongly favoring the smart…the next 1000 years should be interesting…anywo, your possums are cute–but kinda look like all the other animals in australia, no offense, just there’s a certain “look” to your fauna that seems absent elsewhere… oh by the way, there’s a funny thread on reddit where an aussie posted a picture of a cat with an aussie possum baby clinging to its back and a 1000 americans saying it was squirrel! and mayhem erupting since we don’t actually call our opossums opossums in real life, but possums…very funny thread…cheers!


BobinOz December 3, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Well I never knew that possums (and opossums) have opposable thumbs or that they eat cockroaches. So they get a double thumbs up from me on that score.

I’m glad our possums are cute, I prefer that to ugly, but I can assure you not all of our animals have that kind of look, and we have one bird that makes a turkey look like a pussycat. I’m glad you reminded me, I’ll write a post about it on Friday.



Rod December 28, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Australian brushtail possums can make a real mess of a cat, if the latter is silly enough to press the point. Sure, Aussie possums are cuter than their American cousins, but they are also very well armed with claws that make a cat’s look like toothpicks and teeth that can bite off a human fingertip.

This is worth bearing in mind if you make friends with one yourself. Remember that they are wild animals and if they get frightened for some reason they can do some real damage. Even feeding them by hand can lead to some nasty “misunderstandings”. A couple of my relatives still bear scars from hand-feeding possums bits of banana, when the possums concerned got a bit confused about where the banana ended and the feeding finger began!

I love possums, but be careful when getting up close!


Rod December 28, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Just to re-iterate the previous point, here is a picture of a brushtail possum skull. Those front lower teeth are 2 cm long! http://museumvictoria.com.au/bioinformatics/mammals/images/vlpcside.htm

The image at http://cdn1.arkive.org/media/6F/6F853324-7BBD-46EE-B975-D52113B09E92/Presentation.Large/Common-brushtail-possum-on-tree-trunk.jpg gives a good idea of their claws. Great for climbing trees or doing serious damage to a cat or dog or you if you aren’t careful.


BobinOz January 2, 2013 at 8:57 pm

A worthwhile reminder Rod, they do look cute but that doesn’t mean they can’t cause some damage if they feel they need to. Same goes for koalas, they’re as cute as anything but with claws that can rip you apart. Not called wildlife for nothing.

Thanks for pointing this out.


Eggly Bagelface May 9, 2013 at 2:32 am

North American opossums aren’t really all that ugly -only when they hiss. Nor are they particularly dangerous or much of a pest. When they have their mouth closed, they’re actually quite cute. Opossum, by the way, is an Algonquin (the indigenous Native American language group of the Algonquin Peoples of the Great Lakes area, the Northeastern United States and Maritime Canada) word for “white beast” or “white dog”. Also, the term “playing possum” comes from opossums faking dead as a defense mechanism.


BobinOz May 11, 2013 at 12:24 am

In fairness, I think our possums can probably look a bit scary when they are angry, they certainly makes some scary noises when they start getting all territorial.

I do agree with you though Eggly Bagelface, opossums do look better when their mouths are closed and I think the particular photo I’ve used for an American opossum in this post has been unfair to the whole American opossum population. The opossum in my picture is clearly both angry and has an open mouth.

To all American opossums, I apologise :-)




Cheryl July 3, 2013 at 6:07 am

Oh my goodness! I thought they were one in the same. I thought possum was just a lazy way of saying the scientific name opossum. Wrong on all counts. Here in the American South we eat possums. So the real question is do they taste the same :)


BobinOz July 3, 2013 at 11:55 pm

Ah, well that’s a tough one. What do your opossums taste like?


danny November 14, 2013 at 1:11 am

well i found your page very interesting im a languages student and i live in mexico where the possums are pretty uglies xD and i was confused because in fact the ones that appeared in ice age are the ones that are like american ones and i was wondering about the other species like timon the one of lion king so its a very great help thank

pd amazing website=)
greetings from puerto aventuras mexico=)


BobinOz November 15, 2013 at 1:38 pm

I don’t remember seeing possums in either film, but I’m sure they were there :-) so I have no idea what kind of possum was in the Lion King, anybody know?


chris ester March 10, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Well, my Aussie friend…. as an American who happens to think that our opossums are gosh darn cute… I am wondering what the photographer did to tick off that particular cutie. Opossums are omnivores in the broadest sense and LOVE a good bit of well rotted carrion, so if they happen to take a nip, the bite will be pretty dirty and need a big dose of antibiotics.

They also have a sweet tooth. My son worked at a wildlife shelter in the southeast U.S. and how he found out about their bite being so filthy is that the owner/director of the shelter was accidentally nipped while feeding one little girl grapes. Alas, our opossums have very bad eyesight and are not very smart. But they aren’t as nasty as that photo would have a person believe! They are good verminators though. A group moved in under my parents’ home one winter and there were absolutely no mice, rats or snakes in the house the entire year that they roomed under the house. Also, they can’t carry rabies, so the bite is dirty, but doesn’t necessitate rabies treatment!


BobinOz March 10, 2014 at 11:28 pm

I must admit that is one scary looking opossum in the picture and it is very pleasing to hear that they do not all look like that. Anything that gets rid of rats and mice without carrying rabies has got to be a good thing as well, so I think we can safely say that both your opossums and our possums are good things.

Now, maybe I just need to find a cute photograph of one of your opossums…


margo March 12, 2014 at 9:31 am

I have had a mother and baby possum living in my car garage in a cardboard storage box in the rafters for well over 3 years, they do not poop or pee anywhere in the garage or on anything, and they don’t damage anything by chewing stuff , so maybe the house ceiling pee is a male territory marking thing.
I live in Southern Queensland.


BobinOz March 13, 2014 at 1:13 am

Yes, it’s almost certainly a bloke thing. Us human geezers mark our territory by leaving the toilet seat up, same thing :-)

Your possums obviously go to the girlie room which they have established somewhere outside of your garage. Keep them around, they will take care of the rats and snakes as chris ester has said above.

Cheers, Bob


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