What Is the Difference Between a Possum and an Opossum?

(Last Updated On: June 13, 2019)

What Is the Difference Between a Possum and an Opossum?

In this post, we’ll be looking at the possum and the opossum. What’s the difference between these two seemingly similar critters in the first place? It turns out, the answer is a bit weirder than you might think. For starters, it actually depends on where you are and who you are asking. But let’s explore this a bit more.

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What Is the Difference Between a Possum and an Opossum?

To be brief, one is native to North America, while the other is native to Australia and other parts of the Eastern hemisphere. However, in North America, “possum” and “opossum” colloquially refer to the same animal. So basically, if you’re in North America and you’re not talking to an animal scientist, you can get away with not knowing the difference.

Generally, however, when people mention the opossum, they’re thinking of the Virginia opossum; in the US it’s common to call this animal a possum. This is the one that plays dead. As a side tangent, playing dead isn’t something the opossum does voluntarily. It just kind of happens when they’re really stressed out. Imagine if opossums had to handle a mortgage, they’d just always be playing dead.

Possums are nocturnal and native to the Eastern hemisphere (Opossums are generally nocturnal, but they’re a bit less strict about it thanks to urban evironments). However, like the opossum, they are marsupials (mammals with the chest pouches). Aside from that, the similarities pretty much end. Possums generally stick to just eating leaves (though they can eat meat), while the opossum is a little less picky. By that, we mean a lot less picky. Opossums eat a lot of dead things. Furthermore, the common brushtail possum has a fluffier tail, while opossums have more rat-like tails.

To give you a more visual idea too, the Virginia opossum has a lighter fur color and a white head. The common brushtail possum is far darker in color.

Just to cement things further, possums and opossums belong to different taxonomic families. Quick refresher – it’s a system for cataloging and classifying plants and animals. Opossums belong to the didelphidae family, while possums fall under phalangeridae.

Possum Vs. Opossum

Possum Opossum
Family – Phalangeridae Family – Didelphidae
Native to the Eastern hemisphere Native to the Western hemisphere
Generally sticks to fruits and leaves Tends to eat dead things along with plants
Tend to live in trees They eat roadkill, they don’t have to live in trees
Cannot play dead Plays dead when threatened
Fluffier and prehensile tails (for grabbing trees )  Rat-like tails

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About Kyler 727 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.