With only one family and more than 60 species, possums are a diverse group of marsupial mammals. They belong to the order Didelphimorphia, which contains more than 110 species. Today, most of these occur in Central and South America except for one: the North American or Virginia opossum (which is often referred to as ‘possum’). The Virginia Opossum is the only marsupial that occurs in northern Mexico. It is the only species that occupies temperate North America. Now before we deep dive into what do possums eat in the wild, let’s explore a little bit about possums in general. 

Marsupials are those mammals that carry and suckle their offspring in a pouch. There are about 272 species of marsupials throughout the world. Of which 200 species are found in Australasia and 70 species occur in South and Central America. 

Virginia opossums - what do possums eat

Virginia Opossum (Didelphis virginiana) near the Franklin County Landfill south of Columbus. Photo © Paul Hurtado. Image Source: Flickr

Being small- to medium-sized animals, possums are just about the size of a house cat. Though most of them possess well-developed pouch, few species do not have this luxury. They are normally solitary and somewhat arboreal (animals that live in trees) marsupials. The babies of possums are born deaf and blind, and they are just about the size of honeybees. 

As soon as possums see any approaching predator (like foxes or bobcats), they flop onto the ground and act as if they are dead.  While ‘playing possum’, the animal may extend out its tongue and either close its eyes or look fixedly.

Difference Between “Possum” and “Opossum”

These two words have their origins in the same word in Native American language, ‘aposoum’. This word (aposoum) comes from the language of Powhatan people which means the ‘white animal’.

When we say ‘opossum’, it means Virginia opossum which is native to North and South America. 

However, the word ‘possum’ usually refers to ringtail possums, honey possums, and brushtail possums. All of these species live in Australia, New Guinea, and Sulawesi (an Indonesian island). 

What Do Possums Eat in the Winter

Most of them are opportunistic omnivores. However, some species are mainly carnivores such as thick-tailed opossum and Patagonian opossum. Thanks to their scavenging habits, you’ll often find them forcing their way into human settlements. They are known to scrabble around in dumpsters and garbage cans. 

Some species (like rock ringtail and mountain pygmy possums) feed on small fruits, flowers, grass, leaves and nuts. 

Due to their carnivorous habits, possums often hunt down snakes, birds, mice and chickens.

Brushtail possums are perhaps one of the most well-known marsupials in Australia. 

Also known as burramys, mountain pygmy possums are the only known marsupials that hibernate for long periods (up to seven months). In addition to fruits, flowers and seeds; they also eat bogong moths. 

Water Opossums

The water opossum (also referred to as ‘yapok’) is the only extant species of marsupials that spends most of the time in water. They are mostly found in freshwater streams. Water opossums are excellent swimmers and they propel through water with the help of their tails that act like rudder. 

Water opossum - what do possums eat

Water Opossum (Chironectes minimus). Image Source: American Society of Mammalogists

They are perfectly adapted to aquatic habitats. Thanks to their semi-aquatic habits, water opossums usually feast on a wide range of aquatic organisms. 

Like most other opossums, water opossums are carnivores. They usually prey on aquatic crustaceans like lobsters, crayfish, crabs, and shrimp. Apart from these, they also scarf down aquatic frogs and insects. 

Unlike other species, water opossums do not seek help from their tails while shinnying up a tree.

The diet of water opossums also includes oil producing prey. By consuming these prey items, they take good care of their water-repellant coat too. 

When their favorite food is in short supply, they may nibble at fruits and a wide range of aquatic vegetation (like leaves and microalgae).

Virginia Opossums

Virginia opossums are expert climbers and their tails play a crucial role while making their way up the trees. Like most other opossums, they are nocturnal and solitary creatures. 

Being highly opportunistic feeders, they usually snarf down a wide variety of foodstuffs. They tend to feed on a lot of plants, grains, vertebrates, invertebrates, carrion, and fruits. 

During winter months, they gorge on primarily small vertebrates. 

However, during warmer months, Virginia opossums mainly gobble up a lot of plants, seeds, fruits, and invertebrates. 

Lutrine or Thick-tailed Opossums

These bizarre-looking opossums are native to South America. They are mostly found in grasslands near freshwater or marshy habitats. Despite their terrestrial habits, they are also expert swimmers and climbers. 

Lutrine opossum - what do possums eat

Lutrine or Little Water Opossum (Lutreolina crassicaudata). The word ‘lutrine’ means ‘otter-like’. Photo © Guillermo Soteras. Image Source: Ecoregistros.org – Community Ecological Records

Thick-tailed opossums are carnivores and they tuck into a wide range of insects, small rodents, birds, and small crustaceans. They tend to have the most carnivorous diet among opossums. 

In captivity, they are found to consume frogs, earthworms, mice and shrimp. 

Sources & Further Reading:

Regidor, Héctor A.; Gorostiague, Martín; Sühring, Silvia. “Reproduction and dental age classes of the little water opossum (Lutreolina crassicaudata) in Buenos Aires, Argentina”Revista de Biología Tropical47 (1–2): 271–272.

Facure, Kátia Gomes; do Nascimento Ramos, Vanessa (2011-03-01). “Food habits of the thick-tailed opossum Lutreolina crassicaudata (Didelphimorphia, Didelphidae) in two urban areas of southeastern Brazil”. Mammalian Biology – Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde76 (2): 234–236

Wund, M. and P. Myers . “Metatheria” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 29, 2021

Myers, P. 2001. “Didelphimorphia” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 29, 2021

Siciliano Martina, L. 2013. “Didelphis virginiana” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 29, 2021

McHugh, T. and C. Small 2013. “Chironectes minimus” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed March 29, 2021

Opossums“. National Geographic.

Possums“. National Geographic.

bison or buffalo? Possum or opossum? What’s the difference?“. National Geographic.