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:

Whose possums are the cutest?

Update April 2016

Just added a video post you may also like:

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{ 296 comments… add one }
  • Bon June 23, 2020, 10:23 pm |

    Bob…. I need to know why our possums are so darn cute and look like they could be a pet and American opossums look like they are mutated???? (Not so cute and friendly looking) I feel it may have something to do with leading us into a death trap??? Thoughts????

    • BobinOz June 26, 2020, 3:51 pm |

      Well, yes, I think I know where you’re coming from. The cone snail, for example, looks quite pretty but can kill you, so do cute Australian possums have a dark side? This is Australia, after all.

      I can assure you though that after doing extensive research going back through years and years of history, I can find no evidence of an Australian possum ever being responsible for the death of any human here in Australia.

      Turns out they are ‘just’ cute, and that’s it. Even American opossums, despite their sometimes aggressive look, won’t kill you either.

      So that’s at least something we needn’t worry about in these current uncertain times.

  • J May 28, 2019, 9:52 pm |

    Do you have ticks? Opossum are a huge asset in the war on ticks.

  • Kate L May 8, 2019, 12:15 am |

    Hi Bob! I found your site while searching to find out if your brushtail possums are resistant to rabies (or lyssavirus) the same way North American opossums are. I’m guessing they are not resistant. The NA opposum is resistant due to its low body temp & slow metabolism, but your possums appear to be far more active and they don’t play dead. So…just curious? BTW, opposum only look “ugly” when threatened. They’re very cute, very gentle. Inexplicably, they’re known often to befriend cats–a Google search will bring up many pix and stories. Thanks!

    • BobinOz May 8, 2019, 6:21 pm |

      Fortunately for us here in Australia, we don’t have rabies, but we do have a similar thing, Australian bat lyssavirus infection, which as the name suggests, comes from bats.

      Whether or not possums can get ABLI, I really don’t know, but it would be a very rare occurrence if one did I would think.

      Like your opossums, ours can also be very friendly and a few people here have commented how they can sometimes get on with domestic cats as well. Despite my pictures, I do concede that some of your opossums can look cute at times.

      Cheers, Bob

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