Date of this Version
The Prairie Naturalist • 49(2): December 2017
The Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is broadly distributed across North America from Costa Rica in the south to southern Ontario in the north and from the southern Great Plains in the west to the eastern United States. The Virginia opossum also was introduced multiple times to thePacific Coast beginning in the late 1800s and has established populations in that region (Gardner and Sunquist 2003). This species is a habitat generalist known to frequent wetland and hardwood habitats but also can be found in grasslands, along forest edges, and in agricultural and suburban settings throughout its range (Gardner and Sunquist 2003, Beatty et al. 2014). However, the Virginia opossum is adapted poorly to winter, limiting its northern distribution to more tolerable warmer climates. It does not hibernate or exhibit torpor, and it will remain in its den rather than forage on nights when temperatures are below freezing or when there is deep snow, risking starvation if more than 54 days of winter are too harsh to forage (Brocke 1970).
Despite these limitations, the Virginia opossum has expanded north in recent decades (Myers et al. 2009) and has been documented in novel areas of the Upper Midwest and New England (e.g., Dice 1927, Goodwin 1935, Jackson 1961). Both climate change and human land use alteration have been identified as contributing factors to their current range expansion. A recent study conducted across Michigan and Wisconsin identified reduced days of snow on the ground and increased agricultural land as two key factors facilitating the opossum’s expansion in the Midwest (Walsh and Tucker 2017). As generalist omnivores, opossums benefit from increased road kill and resources provided by agricultural practices (Beatty et al. 2014). Humans are further ameliorating winter conditions by providing shelter and easily accessible food, as evidenced by opossums in urban areas weighing more than individuals in adjacent natural habitats (Kanda 2005, Wright et al. 2012).