Grammar Common Spelling Mistakes 2022-09-05 00:00

Opossum vs Possum: What's the Difference?

Cover image for article

  • A possum.

  • An opossum.

Two furry animals with names so similar you would rightfully be forgiven for mixing them up.

But you are here to make sure that doesn't happen, so let's take a look at how to distinguish these furry marsupials.

  1. Are Opossums and Possums Different Animals?
  2. How Do You Identify an Opossum?
  3. How Do You Identify a Possum?
  4. How to Remember the Difference Between an Opossum and a Possum
  5. What Does It Mean to "Play Possum"?

Are Opossums and Possums Different Animals?

Possums and opossums are different animals.

Glad we could clear that up.

  • Possums are marsupials, native to Australia and the Indonesian islands of New Guinea and Sulawesi.
  • Opossums are marsupials that live in North and South America.

Image showing opossum vs possum

But the similarities in their names are not totally coincidental.

Possum and opossum both come from the word aposoum, which means “white animal” in Powhatan.

But if they're different animals, why give them (almost) the same name? This similarity exists because the possum was colloquially named after the opossums of America due to their physical resemblances. The word possum comes from the word opossum—but they don't refer to the same animal.

Image showing the word that opossum and possum come from

How Do You Identify an Opossum?

The opossum is a small- to medium-sized marsupial that ranges in size from of a small mouse to a small dog.

In addition to this, most opossums:

  • Have long snouts and a narrow skull.
  • Have a large number of teeth with small incisors and large canines.
  • Have a dark-gray coat, although some have yellow and brown tones.
  • Walk with flat feet and have opposable digits.
  • Don't have a furry tail.
  • Dwell in trees and are partly or wholly omnivorous.

Image showing how to identify an opossum

Where are Opossums From?

There are over 100 species of opossum that are all native to the Americas. In fact, they are the largest order of marsupials in the western hemisphere.

The most common species is the Virginia opossum, which is the only species found in both the United States of America and in Canada.

Image showing where opossums are from

How Do You Pronounce Opossum?

The pronunciation of opossum is remarkably similar to "a possum" but there is a minor difference. The o is pronounced "uh".

Opossum has three syllables: uh-po-sum

Image showing how to pronounce opossum

The Different Names for an Opossum

The scientific name for an opossum is didelphimorphs. As this, and most other scientific names, are too complex for everyday use, the animals were given a nickname: opossum.

Is It Acceptable to Shorten Opossum to Possum?

Although many people say possum when they mean opossum, it is not technically correct. While both Australian possums and American opossums are marsupials, they are different creatures.

You would not be penalized in daily life but, for the sake of accuracy, I would recommend that you do not shorten opossum to possum.

Image showing not to shorten opossum to possum

Now, unless you're really into animals you probably won't be using possum and opossum in your daily vocabulary. But it still wouldn't hurt to know the difference and maybe show off with this bit of possum vs. opossum trivia you learnt.

Of course, we have your back. ProWritingAid has a built-in word explorer that you can use as a quick point of reference.

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How Do You Identify a Possum?

There are over 70 species of possum and they all have slightly different characteristics. They range in size from 0.3oz to 15lbs (10g to 7kg).

There are some general similarities among all versions of possums:

  • They are four-footed marsupials.
  • They have prominent median incisors.
  • They all have long, thick, furry tails.
  • They are primarily gray in colour.
  • They are mostly nocturnal and generally herbivores or omnivores.

Image showing how to identify a possum

Where are Possums From?

Possums are from Australia and the Indonesian islands of New Guinea and Sulawesi.

They are very common in urban Australia and can be found scampering over roofs at night and hanging from trees.

Possums are not dangerous, unless you are another possum trying to take over their territory.

Image showing where possums are from

How Do You Pronounce Possum?

Possum is one of those lovely words that is pronounced as it is spelled. There are no tricks like with opossum.

Possum is a two-syllable word: po-sm

Image showing how to pronounce possum

The Different Names For a Possum

The scientific name for these animals is actually phalangeriformes and they are a sub-order of arboreal marsupials.

They are commonly known as possums because of their close physical relationship to opossums.

Possums also have a few other colloquial names, including gliders and cuscus.

How to Remember the Difference Between an Opossum and a Possum

Unless you want to get up close with either of these animals (which I would not recommend), there is no hard and fast rule for identifying them by appearance alone.

The easiest way to identify a possum versus an opossum is by location:

  • If you are in America or Canada, it is probably an opossum.

  • If you are in Australia or on an Indonesian island, it is probably a possum.

Image showing the locations for possum and opossums

What Does It Mean to "Play Possum"?

Playing possum or playing dead is when an animal pretends to be dead to protect itself from a predator. Both opossums and possums use this tactic to save themselves.

Image showing meaning of playing possum

Opossums and possums have no control over their reaction when they come face to face with a predator. The comatose state they fall into when they play dead can last up to four hours, during which time they have no way of defending themselves.

Is Playing Possum an Effective Defense?

Neither opossums nor possums have the speed or the strength to defend themselves from predators. They are also peaceful creatures who would rather not engage in fight.

Most predators would rather take on a live animal as they have less chance of disease, and therefore will normally leave a dead opossum alone.

Although playing dead would not work well for humans, it is a very effective defensive tactic for opossums.

On a final note, if you have come here after watching Over the Hedge, know that Heather and her father are opossums, not possums.

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