I am always amazed at the folk lore that somehow stays alive in spite of the education available today… the things we believe that somebody made up long ago to cover up their ignorance because they were afraid to admit, “I don’t know!” Sometimes these things are called old wife’s tales, probably by an old man who had no idea about something so he blamed the story he made up on his “old” wife.
I am also amazed at the responses and questions I always get about possums. The poor babies have been blamed for so many things that they have never done, cannot do, are not capable of doing… but I have never been asked about their sex lives before. The question put to me in a comment on an earlier post was, “How do possums breed?” My answer - With a lot of noise and absolutely no commitment - much like a lot of kids today, sadly! I have never actually "seen" it, but I have seen the results. Sometime after we tried to release PITA, she went in season, and came home badly chewed and battered. She was so badly hurt, we were unable to re-release her... but she was indeed pregnant. I had never thought much about the sex life of possums before our possum specialist vet told us we would have to have her spayed if we wanted to keep her alive. So, that was when I did some research, since an ordinary vet is normally unable to neuter a possum. Seems they have 2 sets of equipment, and boy possums have a double, or forked, penis. Double the pleasure or double the trouble, I don't know which it is... Anyway, immediately after copulation, the little boy possum moves on looking for his next meal and conquest. The new mama starts looking for a nesting site as she will give birth in less than 2 weeks, sort of... you see, along with having 2 vaginal canals, etc, she also gives birth twice, sorta.
“The opossum gives birth to 16-20 (often more) babies, only 12-13 days after mating - the shortest gestation period of any North American mammal. Newborn opossums are about the size of a grain of rice. They cannot see, but will scramble from their birthplace under their mother's tail, and wriggle across her hairy belly to the safety of her pouch. Most do not survive the journey, as the youngsters must find a nipple, and there are only 13 nipples. Neonates who do not locate a nipple will perish - each infant opossum must attach itself to one of her nipples.
After just 1 week of suckling, the babies triple their size. In 1 week the birth weight increases ten times. After about 60 to 70 days in the pouch, the youngsters' eyes finally open, they have some control of their body temperatures, and they have grown to the size of a white-footed mouse, weighing about an ounce. At this time they occasionally release their hold on the nipple. Soon they will venture out of the pouch. When they reach 75 to 85 days of age, they are weaned and seldom go back in the pouch. They will stay with their mother until they are about 3 to 4 months old.”
The best account of their reproduction cycle can be found at http://www.opossumsocietyus.org/opossum_reproduction_and_life_cycle.htm, which includes lots of great pictures. I really recommend this site. It also included the folktale about how possum’s have sex.
I was curious what prompted this question and then found out it came from an old “mans” tale, since no wife would have made this up, that goes like this. Maybe we can blame it on Capt John Smith…
Captain John Smith, an early explorer of the Chesapeake Bay, described the opossum as a creature with "an head like a swine, and a taile like a rat, and is of the bignes of a cat." In regards to the female's pouch, he wrote "Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young." European naturalists were at a loss for how to classify this new creature. They explained the opossum as being half fox, half monkey and gave it the Latin name Simia vulpa (SimianMonkey, Vulpes-Fox).
These early explorers and naturalists were even more at a loss regarding the opossum's reproductive nature. The penis of the male opossum is bifurcated or forked. This, combined with the female opossum's prenatal habit of licking her belly, nipples and pouch area, led to the folktale that in reproducing, the male and female have sex through the female's nose and she then blows the young into her pouch. Later, it was discovered that the females have a bifurcated reproductive track and all the preening is done to create a moist warm pathway for the newborns to follow. This is from http://www.audubon.org/chapter/md/md/native_wildlife.htm.
What’s worse is, this same afternoon, as I was sitting in a class after a lecture, visiting with some friends, one of the women said she told her husband she wanted a “nose job.” I had just taken a sip of my Starbucks… I doubt the stains will ever come out. I am so glad I did not have to explain my reaction. I was totally speechless.
I am so glad I didn’t spray anyone else.
I know, I am pitiful.