Possums are arboreal nocturnal marsupial mammals. That is, they are mammals that live in trees, only come out at night and rear their young in a pouch in their abdomen. Overall, they are 69 species of possums in the world, of these 23 species are unique to Australia.
Australian Possums range in size from the tiny pygmy possum which only 70 mm in length and weighs of 10g to the brushtail possum which can reach more than a meter in length and weight 10 kgs. Depending on the species, they have soft fur which is silver-grey through dark orange to dark brown in colour. They all have excellent night-vision, hearing and a sense of smell.
Being arboreal animals, they are very nimble with sharp claws which makes them capable of climbing up vertical surfaces and clambering along flimsy tree branches and even electric power lines. Some such as the ringtail possum, have a prehensile tail where the tail can be used to hold on to branches.
Possums are shy, solitary territorial animals. They mark off their home patch by urinating and rubbing oil produced by special scent glands on their chests, chin and anus in strategic locations throughout their territories. They are generally not aggressive, preferring to silently stare down their opponent rather than get involved in serious altercations. They can be violent, however, if provoked, clawing and biting their attacker.
While in Jamestown Virginia in North America in early 1608, Captain John Smith (who Pocahontas saved from death - remember the Disney movie) described an unusual animal which carried its young in a pouch in its abdomen.
"An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein shee lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young". He
derived this name from the Algonquian American Indian language which called this animal "apasum" meaning white animal. By 1613 the name appeared in print with the "o" dropped off becoming
simply "possum". It has been used as a colloquial term in North American ever since.
Joseph Bank, a naturalist, who accompanied Captain James Cook on the sailing ship the Endeavour arrived in Australia in 1770. When Banks observed a tree climbing marsupial he noted it as "an animal of the Opossum tribe" because of its similarity to the opossum of North America. Again, soon, the 'o' disappeared and the Australian animal was referred to as a possum too.
In time it was determined that, while both animals were marsupials, they were very different indeed. As a consequence the American opossum was classified under the scientific name Didelphimorphia and the Australian possum under the scientific name Phalangeridae.
So in proper usage the Australian animal is a possum and the American animal is an opossum.
A male possum is called a jack
A female possum is called a jill
A baby possum is called a joey
The plural of possum is possums. Contrary to popular belief, a group of possums is not called a "passel". (passel merely means a large number). As with most Australian marsupials, possums are solitary animals and do not congregate together in large numbers like for example a "mob" of kangaroos or a "herd" of cattle. So a formal name to define a group of possums never eventuated.
Possums are arboreal animals that live in forests and wooded throughout the eastern and south-eastern parts of Australia ranging from the rainforests of Queensland (Cuscus) to the eucalyptus forests of Victoria (Leadbeater's Possum).
They are also native to Papua New Guinea and Sulawesi. In recent time they have also been introduced to New Zealand and China by humans.
Possums prefer the dense foliage of trees and rarely come down to ground. They build their nests high above ground. These nests are built in tree hollows and in dense foliage and are lined with shredded bark, twigs and leaves. Some of the smaller species of possums such as the sugar glider, may share a nest with up to eight others.
Some possums, such as the brushtail possum, sometimes build their nests the ceilings of houses, garages, sheds and even chimneys. These urban possums can be a huge nuisance to homeowners.
With urban sprawl and the destruction of the possums' natural habitat a number of these animals have been making themselves at home in suburban areas. Bushy tail and ringtail possums in particular have come to like the comforts of urban living.
There is even a story of two cunning possums who devised an ingenious scheme to get their little paws on some delicious vegetables in a protected urban veggie patch. One possum hung on to an overhanging branch with its back legs, grabbed onto its accomplice's rear legs with its front paws and lowered its partner down to snatch the vegetables.
Urban possums are especially fond of the warm cosy building humans construct. Some are known to even pull off roof tiles and squeeze through openings in roofs and build themselves nests in ceilings and other nucks and crannies of human-built structures.
Unfortunately these crafty possums are greatly attracted to suburban garbage bins and gardens. In domestic gardens they will eat almost anything from flowers such as roses, camellias, magnolias; to fruits and vegetables such as mangoes, apples, pears, grapes, melons, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots; and shrubs and small trees such as wisteria and wattle.
Urban possums can be an absolute nuisance. They can be noisy by clambering over roofs at night, destructive by urinating and defecating in ceilings and other areas around buildings giving the whole area a terrible stench, tearing up heating ducts and insulation, raiding chick copes and garbage bins and cropping through peoples gardens.
The major threats facing urban possums are dangers associated with humans. These include homeowners angry at the mess possums make of their ceilings and gardens, to being knocked down by motor vehicles, to attacks by domestic cats and dogs.