Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Another Roadkill

I left home with plenty of time to get to work this morning, but I was delayed en route by a napping marsupial.

I wasn't five minutes out when I drove past an opossum taking a permanent siesta in the road.  I kept going, but then thought "that 'possum was in pretty good shape."  My next thought was "I'd sure like it's skull for our collection at work."  So I hit the brakes, turned around, pulled over, found a plastic bag in the car, stuck the body in the bag, and headed back to work, arriving only a couple minutes late.

Of course, Carrie and I (that's her foot in this photo) had to do a photo shoot, because it's not too often that one gets to see an opossum this closely without it having some say in the matter.

As with many animals, I was fascinated by its feet.   Here's a close up of one of the back feet.  Note that there isn't much of a claw on the "thumb."

The front foot looks so much like a human hand.  Click on the photo to get a good look at the "fingerprints" on the palm pads - they are beautiful!  I wonder of those "fingerprints" function like the ridges on a gecko's foot: extra gripping power.

Rigor mortis hadn't set in yet, so we were able to manipulate the feet and mouth to position them for better images.  Lifting up the lips, we had a good view of the teeth.  Opossums have the greatest number of teeth of any North American mammal.  They are mostly conical in shape, too, enabling these animals to eat just about anything.  They are scavengers, so most things are on the menu.  If you look closely, you will see that this poor fellow bit his tongue when he was hit by the car that did him in.   Sadly, parts of the jaw were broken by the collision.  I don't know how good the skull will be until we get the whole animal skinned, but I'm thinking it may not be great.  Pity.

As is typical of these animals, our specimen here showed some definite frostbite damage on the end of his tail.  I love how scaly the tail is - reminds me of a pangolin.

The ears are also prone to frostbite.  This one's ears weren't too badly bitten, but the edges show some scaring.

I was very excited to see that we had a male here.  Why?  Because opossums have a bifurcated penis - it is forked at the tip!  Now there's something you just don't see every day.  This trait had naturalists flummoxed for generations.  Early on man believed that the reason for this unusual design was that the males fertilized the females through the nose (two tips to the penis, two nostrils to the nose), and (it gets even better) the female then sneezed her young into the pouch on her belly (remember, this is a marsupial).  

In truth, reproduction happens the same with with opossums as it does for most other mammals, with the exception that the young are "born" extremely premature.  When they are "born," the little pink things wiggle their way across the mother's belly and into her pouch, where each one attaches to a nipple.  Here they stay, firmly attached, until their development is complete.  It's a rather odd way to develop if one is a fetus, but it seems to work for marsupials, and aren't we lucky to have a specimen of these unusual mammals here in our own back yards!

As interesting as this up close encounter with the opossum was, I think I still prefer to see them in their natural, alive state.   So, let's end with ...

The End.


  1. Now that's something I have never seen: a bifurcated penis! You do find the most fascinating stuff!

  2. Wow, great closeups. Very interesting. Though on the whole, I prefer them alive too.

  3. Ellen, you crack me up! This is something my Steve would be interested in also. Though I'm getting better at looking at/touching dead animals, so glad I was not out there the day you brought this guy in!

    However, your blog post was very interesting and I learned a lot!

  4. This was quite was fascinating! Any day where I learn something new is considered a win. I inadvertently found this article while searching for reasons a mouse’s tail might have dark red coloring. At first I scoured the internet thinking this was some kind of disease … but then I thought, what about frost bite?

    At present I’m dealing with my first ever mouse infestation. We’ve purchased a small humane trap, and every day, I release the night’s catch back into the wild. Well last night, I heard the trap shut and went out to investigate. The mouse’s tail had gotten caught in the trap door and was hanging out by about 2 inches. The first 1.5 inches of its tail was a dark velvety looking red. It really freaked me out at first, and I was hoping this wasn’t some sort of new deadly rodent disease that would have the CDC placing my house under quarantine. The red color reminded me of a scene in Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, where the forest creatures contract an alien virus which causes giant red splotches on their fur. (Yes, I probably watch too much science fiction lol.) But anyways, the red tip of the opossum’s tail in your photo looks identical to the mouse’s tail… so I can almost positively confirm that the poor mouse just got frost bite. The ensuing loss of sensation would also explain why the mouse didn’t seem to realize, or care, that its tail was caught.

    Thank you for this interesting post ~ I now have the answer to my question, along with new knowledge of opossum body parts!

  5. Hey, Ashley - glad you enjoyed the piece and that it was helpful!

    Good luck with your mouse problem. And Happy Holidays!