Grammar 8 min read

Possum vs. Opossum: Definitely Different Animals

Main Possum vs. Opossum Takeaways:

  • Possums and Opossums are different animals, even though many people use these words interchangeably.
  • Opossums are native to the Americas.
  • What most in North America call a possum is actually called an Opossum. People in this region do not usually pronounce the “O”.
  • Possums are native to Australia.
  • When English explorers first met the Australian creature, they thought it looked like the North American Opossum. As a result, they called it a possum and recorded the name like North Americans would pronounce it (without the “O“).
  • Playing possum is an idiom for playing dead.

Surprisingly, these two similar names don’t refer to the same animal. Instead, they represent two distinct creatures from opposite sides of the planet. In this article, we’ll clear up any possum vs. opossum confusion. And, tell you why these two very different animals (almost) share a name.

Possum vs. Opossum: is it the Same Animal?

Possums and Opossums are actually completely different animals. They are both marsupials and nocturnal, but belong to different orders. In fact, possums are from Australia and are more closely related to kangaroos. Conversely, opossums are from the Americas. The main reason many think that they are the same animal is because of how North Americans pronounce the official name Opossum. For example, they typically don’t pronounce the “O“. Similarly, when English explorers first encountered the Australian animal, they called it a possum because of it’s striking resemblance to the North American creature.

A possum and opossum staring at each other. Text reads possum vs. opossum.
Possum and opossum are both marsupials, but they are different animals. Possums are commonly found in Australia, while opossums are from North America.

How Biology Classifies Opossums vs. Possums

Although both possums and opossums are marsupials, biology classifies them very differently. Interestingly, neither scientific name contains the word possum.

On one hand, the American opossum belongs to the order Didelphimorphia. This order includes more than 60 species. Additionally, most of these species live in Central and South America.

On the other hand, the possum belongs to the order Diprotodontia. This is the largest order of marsupials. In fact, it includes 10 families and 117 species. The order Diprotodontia also includes kangaroos and wallabies.

Is the O Silent in the Word Opossum?

The “O” is not technically silent in the word opossum. However, the majority of people usually don’t pronounce the “O.” The official name for this creature is opossum and you can absolutely say the “O.” If you do pronounce the “O,” be sure to use the article an. For formal writing, use the official name. However, in informal contexts, you can follow the colloquial convention and think of it as a silent letter (like the “H” in honest or “K” in knee). If you chose not to pronounce the “O,” go with the article a.

Why is Possum Spelled Opossum?

What most North Americans call a possum is actually called an opossum. Even though most North Americans don’t pronounce the “O,” possum is spelled opossum because it is the official name for this American omnivore. As a result, you should use the official name opossum in formal writing. On the other hand, it’s okay to leave the “O” off for informal speech and text. It’s worth noting that there is an entirely different animal native to Australia that is also called a possum (not an opossum).

Both Possum and Opossum only have one P, but two S‘s.

There’s a reason these two distinct animals living half a world apart have nearly similar names. The Australian possum received its name because English Naturalist Sir Joseph Banks thought looked a lot like the North American opossum.

Since possum is a variation of opossum, both words share a common origin that dates back to the early 17th century.

Several previous versions of the word(s) include apossoun, apasum, and opassom.

These spellings most likely came from English colonists at Jamestown. They attempted to record the Native American word for the creature, or anglicize the Spanish names.

The first known use of the word opossum occurred in 1610. Then, possum followed shortly after that in 1613.

Comparing the Facts: Possum vs. Opossum in Nature

Considering their separate classifications, there are numerous differences between these two species.

Here are just a few facts comparing the possum vs. opossum:

1. Possum vs. Opossum: Where do They Live?

Possums live in Australasia. This region includes Australia, New Zealand, China, and several Indonesian islands.

By comparison, opossums live in the Americas. They inhabit a vast region that ranges from Southern Canada to Northern Costa Rica.

2. Opossum vs. Possum: What do They Look Like?

The possum has a rounded body with thick fur that’s often golden or brown and a bushy, squirrel-like tail.

By comparison, the opossum‘s features are stark. They have pointed white faces, dark ears, and coarse fur. Their tail is hairless and appears similar to that of a rat.

Mugshots of an opossum and possum. Both animals are pictured holding placards. The opossum's placard contains the following: name, opossum; alias, the possum; order, didelphimorphia; location, North America. The possum's placard reads: name, possum; alias, Australian Possum aka possum from down unda; order, phalangeriformes; location, Australasia. Above the image, the text reads: Why this is confusing? When referring to the opossum, North Americans usually don't pronounce the 'o.'
North Americans usually pronounce opossum without the ‘o’ at the beginning, thus causing confusion.

3. Possums and Opossums: What do They eat?

Both possums and opossums are nocturnal, so they mostly eat a night.

Australasian Possums are tree-dwelling herbivores.

Conversely, American opossums are opportunistic omnivores (otherwise known as scavengers). They eat fallen fruits, insects, and even rattlesnakes.

Moreover, they often make nests in tree holes or the abandoned nests of other animals.

Many consider them a pest because they get into garbage cans looking for scraps. This dumpster-diving behavior can be loud and disturbing at night. Beyond from making noise during the wee hours, they might also leave a mess behind.

But is this bad rap actually true?

Are Opossums Good to Have Around?

People in the United States tend to consider opossums (commonly just called possums) pests. Because they are nocturnal scavengers, they’re accused of knocking over garbage cans looking for scraps. Additionally, many consider them diseased, or even rabid. They may hiss when threatened, which seems aggressive. However, the truth is that opossums can actually be beneficial to have around. First, they clean up spilled garbage. What’s more, they may eat snails, slugs, small rodents, and even rattlesnakes. Rabies rarely occurs in the species. In fact, this animal may actually help thwart illness by eating disease-carrying insects like ticks.

Opossums are quiet and typically gentle creatures. Although they’re rarely responsible for tipping over the trash, they may stop by to scavenge from garbage scattered by another nocturnal visitor.

While it is true that opossums hiss when approached, this is a defensive bluff rather than aggressive behavior. In fact, when truly threatened, an opossum will probably than play dead.

What It Means To Play Possum

Playing possum has become synonymous with playing dead. That’s because when an opossum is threatened, it will fall over onto its side and play dead.

It can stay that way for two minutes or two hours. This helps the animal trick predators into believing that it’s deceased, thus keeping it safe from danger.

In this situation, playing maybe a misnomer since the opossum enters an involuntary catatonic state when threatened. This defense mechanism probably evolved because predators prefer live prey.

In some Native American folklore, the opossum is occasionally seen as a braggart who plays dead out of embarrassment after making a fool of himself.

The phrase eventually became an idiom. It describes people using similar methods to avoid or escape danger.

Don’t let him fool you into thinking he’s asleep. He’s just playingpossumso you can’t ask him where he was all evening.

Opossum vs. Possum: They Might Converge

The English language is famous for shortening words. For instance, double-L spellings become single-L spellings. What’s more, extra vowels disappear.

When we look more closely at possum vs. opossum, the same could actually happen.

Except in formal writing, it’s common in the United States for people to use possum and opossum interchangeably. In fact, these days, you’re far more likely to hear someone here refer to our native backyard marsupial as a possum than an opossum.

Occasionally, this may be expressed with an apostrophe as a stand-in for the initial “O.”

Thomas kept blaming the ‘possumfor knocking over his trash can when actually it was the neighbor’s cat.

More often than not, however, it’s simply expressed as possum, no apostrophe. That’s led many to believe that eventually, opossum may become just another archaic word.

If you’ve ever seen a quirky-looking critter bumbling around your yard late at night, you’ve probably encountered a possum…or opossum? But which is it?

Test Your Possum vs. Opossum Expertise

Possum vs. Opossum Question #1

“Possums” and “opossums” refer to the same creatures.
Correct! Wrong!

The answer is FALSE. Although possums and opossums are marsupials, they are from different orders.

Possum or Opossum Question #2

Which of these creatures does NOT belong in the order Diprotodontia?
Correct! Wrong!

The answer is D. Opossum belongs to the order Didelphimorphia.

Opossum or Possum Question #3

Which of these is an opportunistic omnivore?
Correct! Wrong!

The answer is OPOSSUM. Opossums are scavengers that eat spilled garbage, insects, and rattlesnakes

Opossum Question #4

The “O” in the word “opossum” is silent.
Correct! Wrong!

The answer is FALSE. The “O” in opossum is pronounced “uh,” so the word sounds like “uh·paa·sm.”

Possum Question #5

What does the phrase "to play possum" mean?
Correct! Wrong!

The answer is C. When an opossum is threatened, it will fall over onto its side and play dead.

Read More: Cancelled Or Canceled: Which One Is Correct?

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Krista Grace Morris

Krista heads up Marketing and Content Creation here at INK. From Linguistics and History to puns and memes, she's interested in the systems we create to share our ideas with each other.

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