Among the 169 different types of mammal known to roam the rainforests of Tambopata National Reserve, is the opossum. Opossums originated in South America before spreading into North America when the two continents became joined, and a total of 103 species of this marsupial have been recorded throughout the Americas. Divided into 19 genera, opossums are a highly adaptable family, able to thrive across a range of habitats.
In Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve, it is possible to observe the brown-eared woolly opossum (Caluromys lanatus), a solitary and silent nocturnal creature (also seen occasionally foraging in pairs), as it searches for the staples of its omnivorous diet, which range from fruits and nectar to small vertebrates and invertebrates. By feeding on fruit and nectar, this opossum fulfills the essential role of a disperser, assisting in plant pollination and the germination of seeds.
This species of opossum has a brown coat and limbs, while its belly is a yellowish-orange color and hairless. The grayish-white face of adult brown-eared woolly opossums is bisected by a vertical black line, running from the snout to the crown of the head. Young opossums from this species tend to be grayish in color across their entire bodies. The 20 to 30 centimeter body length of an adult opossum is matched by its extremely large tail. As its name suggests, a similar species, the bare-tailed woolly opossum (Caluromys philander), found mostly in the rainforests of Venezuela and northern Brazil, possesses a much less bushy tail. Given their broad range, the IUCN Red List classifies opossums as of Least Concern.
A highly adaptable marsupial, the brown-eared woolly opossum can be found in primary (virgin) forests like those of Tambopata National Reserve, as well as in secondary (disturbed) forest, mangrove swamps and savannah, such as the Pampas de Heath, a protected natural area bordering Tambopata National Reserve.
As the only marsupials found beyond Australia, female opossums carry their young in a pouch, and a typical brown-eared woolly opossum litter will generally consist of between one and four young. In common with other marsupials, such as kangaroos, newborn opossums must find their own way to the mother’s pouch and attach themselves to the teat from which they will feed until they become independent. This journey from the mother’s uterus to the pouch and teat is the most delicate stage of an opossum’s approximately four-year lifecycle, and many young fail to survive the move.
In adulthood, when threatened, many species of opossum will feign death or sickness rather than attempting to flee, giving rise to the American English term “to play possum”. As part of this behavior, opossums are even able to mimic the stench of a diseased or dead animal.