Possum Or Opossum

March 22, 2012 by staff 

Possum Or Opossum, The most famous marsupial of the moment is Heidi, the goofy, cross-eyed opossum from Germany. Heidi has made headlines across the globe and apparently has over 111,000 fans on Facebook. Enough with the cuteness, and on to a great story of language: What is the difference between “possum” and “opossum?” Is one correct? The answer is more complex, and interesting than you might think.

The opossum received its name in the early 1600′s from Captain John Smith of the Jamestown colony in Virginia. The name is derived from aposoum, a Virginia Algonquian word meaning ‘white beast.’ The shortened version of this word soon became possum when in the late 1700′s Captain Cook’s botanist Sir Joseph Banks upon seeing an Australian common ringtail possum likened the furry creature to “an animal of the Opossum tribe.”

The first recorded reference to the opossum in literature came in 1610 with the publication of A True Declaration of the Estate of the Colonie in Virginia that contains the passage, “There are Apossouns, in shape like to pigges.” This truncation of the original term may explain why many people are surprised to learn that opossum and possum are in fact two very different marsupial species of the arboreal kind.

Possessing a furry tail, the true possum belongs to the Phalangeridae family within the Marsupialia order and is primarily found in New Guinea, Australia, Indonesia and other islands in the Pacific region. With their signature bare tail, the opossum is North America’s only known marsupial; this means the animal carries its young in a pouch much like the Australian kangaroo. There are many varieties of possums, including Gliders and Cuscus, while the opossum is a more limited species. Both the possum and the opossum are nocturnal, nomadic omnivores and live on an expansive diet that includes insects, frogs, birds, snakes and fruits. The opossum is primarily dark grey in color but some resemble cinnamon, and, as in Heidi’s case, white opossums are known to exist. The possum is primarily grey in color. The possum and the opossum are both hunted animals and possess an instinct to play dead, or “play possum” when threatened.

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