Opossum vs Possum: No More Confusion

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The opossum is a marsupial mammal found in North America. The opossum was firstly originated from the South America and started moving towards the North America. The scientific name of Didelphidae was given by John Smith, the English colonist of the Jamestown colony. They are known to be successful colonizers and survivors for they can survive in diverse conditions due to their flexible diet and other characteristics.

Possums are the Australian marsupial mammals also known as Phalangeriformes. The name possum was derived from the opossums of America because they both resemble a lot. Although the Australian marsupials usually have long tails as compared to the opossum. Many people have a lot of confusions regarding these two animals. Most people think that both are the same species with just two different names. However, in actual, when you study in detail, you would get to know that they belong to two different families.

What’s With the “O”?

There have been a lot of conflicts and confusions regarding the opossums and possums being the same animal. To some extent, it won’t be wrong to say that these two are same. Surprised right? Here is the main reason for this confusion. The American possums are the opossums. However, they are referred to the Australian possums which have forced people to think of them the same animal.

If you study the Australian possum, it would be clear that American possums are not related to Australian Possums at all. The main confusion that opossums and possums are the same animals raised due to the Sir Joseph Banks who named the Australian animal as a possum. He named them because they look familiar to American opossums.

Although they look familiar, in many wildlife books you will find that they are not. The American possums (true opossums) look scary due to their pointed teeth, but the Australian possums are very cute animals and not scary at all. Saying that there is no difference between opossums and possums is just like calling a crocodile an alligator.

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The Difference between Opossum and Possum

Here are the following differences between the opossums and possums that will clear your confusions:

1. Scientific Classifications

Difference between opossum and possum
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Both opossum and possum are marsupial mammals still they are different from each other not only in characteristic but also in scientific classification. The opossum is scientifically called Didelphidae whereas possum is known as Phalangeriforme. Both of these animals have the same infraclass of marsupial but have different orders i.e. Didelphimorphia and Diprotodontia.

2. Geographical Prevalence

There are more than 60 species of the opossum found in the western hemisphere. They are the inhabitant of North America. In addition, they are also found from southern Canada to Argentina and Chile in South America. However, they were initially discovered in South America and later on, they started moving to North America. In the north of Mexico, the only native marsupial species originally named Virginia opossum is found.

The Phalangeriforme are the native to Australia, New Guinea, and Sulawesi In addition; they were also introduced to New Zealand. There are about 64 species that are found in these different regions.

3. Physical Characteristics

Although opossum and possum belong to the same infraclass and even the founders, have claimed they are familiar but in real they are different from each other not only in features but also in physical traits.

The opossum color varies from purely white to blackish. Some of them are single colored whereas the others have light and dark bands. They are small in size size (3 to 22 inches), largest species has the size of a house cat. The weight of opossum is often between 1 to 11 pounds. Most of these species have stretched snouts and sagittal crest. Their jaw is full with large canines and small incisors. The key feature making them distinct from other animals is the plantigrade posture. In addition, they also carry prehensile tails but cannot grasp the object for a longer period because they are relatively weak. Possums are the small marsupials having different weights and size. Their size often ranges from a length of a finger to about 4 feet. The largest possums present are the size of a domestic cat. Their weight ranges from 6 ounces to 32 pounds. There are two main largest species of possums, the ringtail possums, and brushtail possums. They have musk glands at the back of their ears that are responsible for producing the rank odor. They have long tail and brown or gray wooly fur on the body. Furthermore, their hind feet are syndactylous i.e. their skin is joined at the top joint but separated at the claws.

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Unusual Facts

Here are some facts about these animals that you might be unaware of

  • The opossum is considered to be intelligent animals. They have the ability to find the food more quickly than rats and cats.
  • Possums are a nocturnal animal. They are active at night and search for abandoned burrows to stay.
  • These creatures are omnivorous animals. Their diet mostly includes flowers, grass, buds, fungi, ferns, fruits, insects, and eggs.
  • Possums do not have great eyesight or hearing power, but their sense of smell is strong enough to keep them safe from dangers.
  • Both of these animals are immune to rabies because of their low body temperature; they carry eight times less than other animals.
  • The lifespan of opossum and possum is usually short only 2 to 4 years.

Are Opossum and Possums Interchangeable?

Range of opossum
Source: https://www.grammarly.com

It can be observed that spellings of opossum and possum are very similar, differ by an extra “o” in starting of possum. Even though they look familiar; they are quite different from each other and not interchangeable. However, in America, sometimes the possums also means 0possums. For they called opossum as American possums and vice versa. In America writing possum is more common than writing the opossum and so is the case in speech.

While writing or during the speech, you should keep in mind the audience you are targeting. In Australia, it is not recommended to interchange the names them because they will get confused that if you mean to say possum as a possum or the opossum.

Common Spelling Mistakes in Opossum

While writing the opossum, people make some common spelling mistakes. Sometimes people write “oppossum,” “opposum,” and even “possum” instead of writing Opossum. All these are wrong spellings, and the brain unconsciously writes these taking the hint from the word “opposite.”

Playing Possum Meanings

range of possums
Source: https://www.grammarly.com

There is a misconception about phrase playing possum that it refers to playing with possums. In actual, there is wholly new and surprising fact of opossums behind these two words. They have a unique behavior of saving themselves from danger. Whenever they feel harmed or threatened they play possum. In this behavior, they pretend to be sick and dead. In this state, their lips are turned black, teeth are revealed, and saliva foam appears on the side of their mouth. Furthermore, they secrete a smelling fluid from their anal glands. This behavior is involuntary and not a conscious act. The curled and stiff form can be easily carried away. This state of these animals can last from 4 minutes to 6 hours. It has proven to be effective in restraining the predators and other hunters. Many people try to kill opossums because they look ugly and scary.

Also if you find any catatonic animal just leave it like that in some quiet and safe place, it will automatically gain conscious after some time and will escape quickly. For, the fluid they secrete is atrocious in smell and can’t be stand by humans if they try to keep the injured or unconscious opossum.


From all of the above discussions, we hope you now have more understanding about the opossums and possums that they are not the same animal. Now you will have no more confusions assuming both are same. However, they have some similar traits, obviously because they belong to the same infraclass i.e. marsupial. They are not same just like crocodile and alligator, and eagle and hawk. If someone is referring possums as opossums, you need to ask which animal type they are referring.

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