BAR HARBOR — Mount Desert Islander reporter Dick Broom was on his way to a meeting one evening last February. While stopped at the stop sign where Park Street meets Ledgelawn Avenue, his vehicle headlights caught the form of a light gray animal across the street.
At first Broom thought it was a cat. But as the animal crossed the road and headed toward him, Broom said, “I could clearly see the long snout, and the long thin tail. ‘That looks like a ’possum,’” Broom remembered saying to himself.
Originally from North Carolina, Broom was familiar with the opossum, North America’s only marsupial. He was surprised to see one on Mount Desert Island. Yet, he said, “I could clearly see it was a ’possum.”
Local business owner Matthew Hochman also had an opossum sighting in the same part of town in March. While driving on Ledgelawn one early evening, Hochman said, “I saw a small long creature, headed toward Glen Mary woods. It was bigger than a mink.”
“I’m familiar with a lot of the [local] animals,” Hochman said, “and this definitely didn’t look like anything I recognized. My first thought was, ‘that’s an opossum.’”
According to Shevenell Webb, a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, opossums “are fairly newcomers to the state.” Webb has been tracking the opossum’s range expansion through Maine, and said she has gotten reports of sightings along the Interstate-95 corridor as far north as Bangor.
“They seem to be associated with people,” Webb said. “For them to survive the Maine winter, they need to eat because they don’t hibernate. People are a source of food. You don’t get them in the north Maine woods out in the middle of nowhere.”
Tony Preston-Schreck of New Sense Wildlife Solutions, a local wildlife management service, agreed that opossums have “a synanthropic relationship with humans,” meaning that their range expansion is “human-related.” Opossums are opportunistic omnivores and much of their diet involves scavenging, he said.
“Road kill is a source of food. Humans — and their road systems and their garbage — is the number one factor” in the opossum’s northern range expansion, Preston-Schreck explained.
Another factor in the opossums’ movement northward is reduced snow pack due to climate change. “As snowfall diminishes, they can forage more for carrion,” said Preston-Schreck.
The opossum’s relationship to humans is not so strong in their southernmost range, Webb explained, but they depend on humans for survival in Maine. This explains why local opossum sightings so far have been on residential downtown streets.
According to Christie Anastasia, public affairs specialist for Acadia National Park, rangers have seen no opossums in the park, “either in person or on game cameras.”
Ann Rivers of Acadia Wildlife Foundation in Bar Harbor said she has not yet had any opossums brought in to her rehabilitation clinic, “but we’re waiting with breath held,” she said.
Rivers has been paying attention to the steady northward expansion of the marsupial. Colleagues in other wildlife centers in Maine have seen them, she said, mostly for frostbitten tails and ears in the winter.
Rivers said she would be happy to see opossums on Mount Desert Island, because of their role in inhibiting the spread of Lyme disease. “They chow down on ticks,” she said.
This is based on a 2014 study by Richard Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. Otsfeld found that opossums, who attract ticks just like any furry animal, were also excellent groomers. Opossums ate more than 90 percent of the ticks that tried to feed on them.
Due to this trait, Otsfeld estimated a single opossum could kill around 5,000 ticks in a season.
Additionally, Preston-Schreck said opossums serve as an effective “clean-up crew. They eat a lot of carrion.” This combined with their “slothlike” slowness and tendency to play dead when frightened, said Preston-Schreck, is why they frequently end up as roadkill themselves.
Preston-Schreck, who uses the image of an opossum paw as his logo, calls the opossum “really exceptional organism in a lot of ways. I find the opossum the proverbial underdog. There aren’t a lot of fans of the opossum. [But] as with all organisms, they fill a very important niche.”
Opossums are marsupials. Pups are born “bumble-bee size” and live the first three months in their mother’s pouch, after which they ride on her back.
Full-grown opossums measure two to three feet in length.
Opossums have prehensile tails. This allows the animal to grasp and hang upside down by the tail.
Opossums have toes on their hind feet that act as opposable thumbs.
Opossums have 50 teeth: more than any other mammal. They bar their teeth to ward off predators.
Opossums are immune to snake venom, and rarely carry rabies.
The term “playing possum” comes from the animal’s tendency to go into a catatonic state when frightened, secreting a foul-smelling substance to drive away predators.
Predators include dogs, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, bobcats, eagles, hawks, and owls. Car accidents are also a significant cause of death.
Historically, opossums lived only in Central America and southeastern United States. During the 1900s, opossums expanded their range northward into New England.
Opossums do not hibernate, do not store much fat, and have bare toes, ears, and tails. In their northernmost range, they are prone to frostbite.
Source: Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife