By Vern and Lori Gieger
We are all familiar with the common opossum, but not with their cousin the mouse opossum. While they have similarities, they also are very different. Both are very important to a healthy ecosystem; the larger common opossum eats just about anything, helping to clean things up; nature’s little sanitation engineers. Their little cousin the mouse opossum helps in a little different way. They consume large numbers of insects.
The mouse opossum is found from Mexico to Panama. This adorable little marsupial is about the size of a mouse. But a whole lot cuter! With large eyes and a little black mask on a tan face and body, it barely resembles the common opossum that we are all familiar with. Mouse opossums are very docile and rarely bite.
They are very clean animals; that’s not to say that their cousins are not but they do spend a great deal more time routinely grooming themselves. They do share characteristics with their cousin the common opossum, such as an opposable thumb and a prehensile tail, but there are differences. They don’t play possum, but most notably is that they lack a pouch! But they both are marsupials.
Ok, what is a marsupial? If you think that marsupials are pouched animals, you`re wrong. Marsupials are basically embryos at birth. The young then nurse for an extended period of time. Once born, the mouse opossum must climb up the fur on its mother’s abdomen and latch onto a teat. Being a pouch-less marsupial, the young must firmly attach to the teats with their mouths and hang on tight. They resemble worms more than mammals, and weigh 1/8 of a gram. During the weaning process, mothers carry them on their backs.
Weaning occurs when the young are 60-70 days old; they leave the mother a few days later. Litters can be as large as 13 although most do not survive to maturity. Life expectancy probably is under one year in the wild but is about three years in captivity. Interestingly, their reproductive ability declines in the second year of life. They are generally solitary; usually hunting and nesting alone, adults are typically not found together.
Mouse opossums are nocturnal and generally arboreal; the mouse opossum lives in moist to dry tropical forests. They are often found in banana plantations and among small trees and tangled vines, or sometimes seek shelter in abandoned bird’s nests, they are rarely found at ground level.
Although they are tiny and may seem insignificant, they play an important role in our eco-system. Despite their small size, they are of great benefit. Like most small mammals, their metabolism rate is very high; therefore, they spend a great deal of time eating. Being part of the ecosystem also means, they are on the menu for many other predators, such as owls, raccoons, coyotes and snakes.
They are quite rare in our area, but if you happen to see a little beige creature, with large eyes and a little black mask, you’ll know it is not a mouse or mole; and it is most definitely a friend! They do not do well in suburban areas, as domestic cats are a primary threat to them. If you find one, please contact us and we will relocate it.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com