MadSci Network: Zoology

Re: Are possums and opossums the same animal?

Date: Sat Jan 20 11:38:19 2001
Posted By: Will Higgs, Grad student, Zooarchaeology, University of York
Area of science: Zoology
ID: 979848014.Zo


At an etymological level, your question can simply be answered 'yes'.  
Possum is just an abbreviated form of the 'proper' name of opossum. It 
originally derived from a Native American word for the animal, and was 
transferred to South America and Australia as a name for similar animals 

Biologically, the question is more complicated because there are many 
species of opossums, but the answer is still basically 'yes'.  The one you 
are probably familiar with is the Virginia or North American Opossum, 
Didelphys virginiana, but there are lots more of its relatives in Central 
and South America.  There are even more of its relatives in Australia, but 
the S American and Australian possums have differentiated into two groups 
because they have been isolated for millions of years.

All opossums are marsupials, pouched mammals considered primitive compared 
to the other mammal groups.  The Virginia opossum has the distinction of 
being the only marsupial in North America.  

Because there are so many different kinds, the word possum/opossum does not 
have a well-defined biological meaning.  It means something like 'small 
arboreal insectivorous marsupial'.

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