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A possum (plural form: possums) is any of about 69 small to medium-sized arboreal marsupial species native to Australia, New Guineamarker, and Sulawesimarker (and introduced to New Zealandmarker and Chinamarker). The name derives from their resemblance to the opossums of the Americas. (The name is from Algonquian wapathemwa, not Greek or Latin, so the plural is possums, not possa.) Possum is also used in North America as a short form of Opossum. A possum's diet is mainly plant-based i.e. leaves, fresh gum tips and flowers; however, they also occasionally eat insects, eggs and meat. An open compost bin in a backyard becomes an enticing smorgasbord for a hungry urban possum.Possums are small marsupials with brown or grey fur, ranging in size and weight from the length of a finger and 170 grams (6 ounces) (pygmy possums and wrist-winged gliders), to a length of 120 centimetres (four feet) and 14.5 kilograms (32 pounds) (brushtails and ringtails). In general, though, the larger possums are about the same size as a well-fed domestic cat. All possums are nocturnal and omnivorous, hiding in a nest in a hollow tree during the day, and coming out during the night to forage for food. They fill much the same role in the Australian ecosystem that squirrels fill in the northern hemisphere, and are broadly similar in appearance.

The two most common species of possums, the common brushtail and common ringtail, are also among the largest.

Interaction with humans

The animal has been a part of Australian culture and folklore since the original indigenous inhabitants of the country. Aboriginal Australians once used possum hides whilst playing the traditional game of Marn Grook. Possum-skin cloaks were important clothing for Aborigines from the south-east, as well as being important clan heirlooms.

Possums are commonly found in suburban areas, where they are often considered pests owing to their habit of eating fruit, vegetables, flowers and tender young shoots from gardens, and nesting in roofs. The loud hissing, crackling territorial call of the male common brushtail may also be a problem for suburban residents. Natural deterrents, which play upon the possum's acute sense of smell, are often employed to discourage them. These include cloves of garlic, camphor or naphthalene. As a native species in Australia, possums are protected by Australian regulations, even when they reside in urban neighbourhoods, and cannot be baited. If captured, regulations stipulate that they must be released within a small radius of the capture site, as they are territorial creatures. Preventative measures such as blocking off their access to the roof spaces or building a possum nesting box for an alternative home are instead recommended.

Although the common brushtail, and to a lesser extent ringtail, possums have adapted well to the urban environment, many of the lesser-known species are reduced in number, threatened, or endangered.

Introduction into New Zealand

After being wiped out on the island by indigionious humans, The common brushtail possum was re-introduced to New Zealandmarker by European settlers in an attempt to establish a fur industry. Unfortunatly, due to the fact that humans had also wiped out all of its natural predators on the island (such as the Tasmanian Devil [now only found in the wild, in Tasmania]) its numbers in New Zealand have risen to the point where it is considered a pest.

There are no native predators of the possum in New Zealand. There have been numerous attempts to eradicate them, because of the damage they do to native trees and wildlife, as well as acting as a carrier of bovine tuberculosis. For New Zealand, the introduction of possums has resulted in as much of an ecological disaster as the introduction of rabbits and cane toads have been in Australia.

Since 1996, efforts have been made to use possum fur in clothing. A blend of Australian brushtailed possum fur with merino wool was developed by Untouched World, a New Zealand fashion label. The product is called merinomink, eco-possum, possumdown, eco fur or possum wool, and accounts for 95% of all commercially caught possum fur. Possum fur is also used for fur trim, jackets, bed throws, and possum leather gloves. All the fur is obtained from wild-caught possums, which are considered pests.

In 2009, it was announced that conservation measures (such as by the DOC) had met some significant success, and had reduced the possum numbers to less than half of the 1980s levels, a drop from around 70 million to around 30 million animals. Almost half (13.3 million hectares) of New Zealand's vegetated land is under some form of possum control, either for conservation reasons, or to reduce the spread of bovine tuberculosis.


Brushtail Possum at night.
Possums are sometimes found in urban areas during night time
Tame Possum in Busselton, Western Australia
Ringtail Possum at night

About two-thirds of Australian marsupials belong to the order Diprotodontia, which is split into three suborders: the Vombatiformes (wombats and the koala, 4 species in total); the large and diverse Phalangeriformes (the possums and gliders) and Macropodiformes (kangaroos, potoroos, wallabies and the musky rat-kangaroo).

See also


  1. New Zealand turns a pest into luxury business.
  2. NZ possum population halved since 1980s

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