In the wild, opossums don't live very long, with a lifespan of only about 2 years. However, captive possums can live a little bit longer, anywhere between 30 to 34 months of age. The marsupial's lifespan is influenced by several factors, such as diet, habitat, and diseases.
Some call it cute, and others call it a menace: the possum is a fascinating creature that has generated a lot of curiosity. One question that people often ask about possums is: how long do they live?
Let’s uncover more about the lifespan of possums and what factors influence how long these creatures live.
Table of Contents
How long do opossums live?
Opossums are among the most short-lived marsupials, with most species living only around 2 years in the wild.
What they lack in life span, they make up for ubiquity. There are about 120 different species of opossums across America and Australia, making it the most diverse order of marsupials in the Western Hemisphere.
That said, these omnivores are known to live a little bit longer on average.
The North American Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) has a lifespan of up to 4 years in the wild. In captivity, they can live up to 6 and a half years.
Why do possums have such a short life span?
Opossums don’t live very long for three reasons:
- They’re food for larger animals.
- They may endanger themselves in human settlements.
- They’re susceptible to diseases.
In the wild, these wild animals are at the bottom of the food chain. They are scavengers, eating food like fruit, snails, and things they can find in garbage bins.
Some of the predators that find opossums delicious include:
- Great horned owls
- Large dogs
Unlike skunks who release a noxious stench to ward off predators, opossums don’t have any natural defenses against these predators. When they’re attacked, their first instinct is to play dead, which doesn’t exactly help them escape being eaten.
Humans also commonly kill possums as pests. In addition to animals of the wild, opossums may often find themselves face-to-face with human-made traps and cars. Further, it’s not uncommon for opossums to wander off into roads and highways, only to end up as roadkill.
Lastly, opossums are also vulnerable to a host of illnesses. If left untreated, they can die early as a result of these diseases.
This is further supported in clinical studies, where researchers have cited that juvenile opossums are highly prone to infectious diseases. This makes it much less likely that they will reach maturity.
Some of the illnesses that are commonly found in opossums include:
- relapsing fever
- spotted fever
What is the longest an opossum can live?
Opossums in captivity can live up to 4 years. This is because they’re provided with proper care, have a healthy diet, and are in a controlled and risk-free environment.
In the wild, however, opossums are more at risk of starvation, harsher outside conditions, predators, and parasites. This cuts their life span to about half compared to a captive opossum – at about 2 years.
In addition, opossums in the wild have a cyclical breeding season. This means that females are only receptive to mating for a brief window of time each year, usually by the end of winter.
Once mating season is over, the jack (male opossum) leaves the territory and never returns.
This departure from familiar territory can increase the risk of death for the males, especially since they’re larger and easier to spot. On the other hand, the female opossum stays in her natural habitat and is tasked to protect her young.
How can you tell how old an opossum is?
It’s easier to determine the age of a baby opossum than an adult opossum.
Like a kangaroo to their joeys, opossums have a pouch where they hide their young. If they’re still in their mother’s pouch or carrion, it’s safe to say they’re less than 2 months old. Newly-born opossums also have closed eyes until the 55 to 70 days mark.
Between 2 to 4 months old, the babies will move to their mother’s back until they become fully independent. At about 4 to 5 months, the opossums begin to leave their mother. These young opossums are still not fully mature. But if you see juvenile opossums on their own and capable of “playing possum” (or acting like dead animals), it’s a good indication they’re at least 4 months old.
Male opossums reach sexual maturity at 8 months, while females reach sexual maturity at 6 months. Their size indicates their maturity, with older opossums weighing between six to nine pounds.
Beyond these years, it can be difficult to tell how old an opossum is without professional assistance.